Do State Funds Require Accountability to the State for Performance?

Yesterday I promised to rebut the case for high-regulation of school choice programs over a series of posts. In this first post of that series I address the argument that state funding of programs requires accountability to the state for performance. It’s the taxpayers’ money, the argument goes, so the public deserves to know if students are doing well. That’s the price — if you take the government’s money, you are accountable to the government.

Unfortunately, the people who make this argument are just repeating a political slogan. If they bothered to think about it, even for a few minutes, they would quickly realize that the vast majority of government programs do not require accountability to the government for performance. When the government provides food stamps it does not require recipients to submit BMI measurements or other indicators of adequate nutrition. Yes, food stamps have some restriction on the items that may be purchased, but the program does not require accountability for performance. Social Security was developed to ensure that senior citizens would be able to buy necessities, like housing and food. But we do not demand an accounting from seniors of the use of those funds. If they want to blow it at the casino and not pay their rent or buy groceries, they are free to do so.

Even in the area of education, government funds do not typically require accountability for performance. We do not require recipients of Pell Grants to take a state test. Beneficiaries of the Day Care Tuition Tax Credit similarly do not have to demonstrate progress toward school readiness in exchange for the government subsidy. Repeating that government funds require accountability to the government is just mindless sloganeering, not an accurate description of how government programs typically operate.

Why do most government programs not require accountability for performance? The simple answer is that in most cases we trust that the private interests of program participants are aligned with the public interest in providing them with the benefit. We trust that food stamp recipients want to avoid being malnourished, which is why we provide them with this assistance. We trust that seniors don’t want to be homeless or go hungry, so are unlikely to blow their money at the casino if a rent payment is due. We trust that college students want an education. And we trust that families with children in pre-school want them to be prepared for later schooling.

We don’t demand performance accountability in any of these programs because we believe that people are likely to use funds in ways that are consistent with the public purpose in providing them with assistance. Of course, that is not always true. Some people would rather trade food stamps for drugs and go hungry. Some people will spend their Social Security checks foolishly and fail to pay the rent. Some college students would rather embark on an alcohol-fueled journey of self-discovery than receive an education. And some families just want their pre-schoolers to be warehoused conveniently somewhere while they go to work rather than improve their children’s school-readiness.

While we are fully aware that some people will abuse these programs and fail to use the funds efficiently in a way that is aligned with the public interest, we recognize that demanding performance measures would undermine the public purpose of these programs even more. Requiring performance measures distorts and narrows the behavior of program participants. It is also costly, burdensome, and highly intrusive.

The same is true for school choice programs. As long as we believe that most program participants have interests that are aligned with those of the taxpayer, let’s design school choice programs like we design most government programs — without performance accountability requirements.

—Jay P. Greene

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