While the intentions of top-down accountability are unquestionable, the impacts of these types of systems are harmful to large groups of students. Although top-down, government-controlled accountability systems within the education sector are beneficial to a few students, they are harmful to most. The flaws inherent to democratic systems, in general, can explain this unintended consequence. In particular, the problems result from unclear principal-agent relationships, uniform rules and measurement, concentrated benefits and dispersed costs, and the makeup of political participants.
The Control Problem
As Terry Moe (2002) points out, there are important problems that arise from the need to control actors within any given system. For example, when there is a principal-agent relationship of any type, the principal needs to figure out how to control the agent. Principals do so through measurement of agent performance and the creation of systems designed to incentivize agents for desirable performance. In the current system of schooling, how could the school leader figure out how well the teachers are doing? Additionally, how could superintendents figure out if the school leaders are doing a good job? These relationships are numerous within any industry, but information is extremely limited in any institution that is controlled democratically, especially when students are coerced to attend a school based on their zip code. Since principals are unable to measure agent performance through student selections, the principals are forced to create different, more complicated measures.
A proponent of public institutions will argue that locally-elected school boards hold schools accountable since rational voters participate in the political process. However, this argument is seriously flawed. First, less than ten percent of voters actually participate in local school board elections, so this could not possibly be representative of the entire society’s views. Additionally, even if all people were legally forced to vote in these elections, they are not incentivized to be completely informed about the success of the candidates. It takes a lot of time and energy to become a rational voter, and individual voters know that they are unlikely to determine the outcome of the election, so why would they become informed? In fact, for most people, it would be irrational to take the steps necessary to become a rational voter. To illustrate my point further, let us assume that everyone was forced to vote and to be a completely rational voter. It is true that there would be more accountability of the elected officials; however, this gets to another problem that is inherent to democratic institutions.
Just as James Madison (2008) pointed out in Federalist no. 51, just as a monarchy leads to a tyranny of a king, democratic institutions can lead to a tyranny of the majority. The democratic process if preferable, of course, since power is dispersed among more people. However, the majority in a school board election, or any other election, is unlikely to represent the views of the entire society. The goals that are pushed through democratic accountability represent the goals held by the majority of those participating in school board elections. This is most likely the views of the most able, and most well informed voters within a society, so the least-advantaged citizens, and their children, are left behind as a result.
Public Choice Theory
Perhaps even more importantly, we must not forget that since people are inherently self-interested in their well-being, their votes may produce a result that is not socially desirable. As James Buchanan and Robert Tollison (1984) indicated, public frameworks create the well-known problem of concentrated interests and dispersed costs. In the context of the public education system, teachers have a huge incentive to mobilize and vote for benefits, while individual citizens bear small costs to cover teacher benefits since they are spread out among a large number of people. In other words, when the costs of voting exceed the benefit of blocking the policy, ordinary citizens do not vote, and the socially undesirable policy passes. As Rick Hess (2002) has discussed, out of rational self-interest, not greed, teachers have the incentive to pass policies that make their salaries and pensions higher while making their jobs easier.
Since democratic institutions are not accountable to the goals of society, the principals must come up with specific rules and measures to determine how to reward or punish their agents. The problem with these measures, such as standardized test scores, is that teachers will have additional incentives to teach what is tested. The basic problem here is one of opportunity costs. If a teacher is focusing more efforts on standardized tests, they will have less time and energy to focus on building character skills such as determination and conscientiousness. While this result may be okay for students that come from advantaged households, since they arguably receive more character building at home, this may be a disastrous policy for those students that need the most help.
The Knowledge Problem (And What to Do About It)
Of course, advantaged bureaucrats look at all of these policies from the lens created by their own past experiences, so they see no problem with focusing on rigorous academics. It’s not that these officials are intentionally harming disadvantaged children. Though these bureaucrats are doing what they think is right, they will not have the ability to determine what every kid needs to focus on. It is a clear example of the basic knowledge problem: information and desires are constantly changing so much that it is impossible even for a benevolent central planner to create a favorable education system for every individual (Hayek, 1945).
Knowing that all of these problems exist in democratic institutions, why create a system of public schooling if one is not necessary? Since schooling is excludable, it does not result in a free-rider problem, so government is not necessary for the operation of schools. While democracy may be needed for services such as national defense, it is not needed for education, so we should not force children to bear all of the unintended consequences of democratic institutions. We end up with a truly an ironic phenomenon: the very attempt to control the education of all children undermines the education of most children. Instead, we should promote private school choice policies that allow children with diverse interests, abilities, needs, and goals pursue an education that is just as unique as they are.
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