Diane Ravitch’s about face on school “accountability” — which favors charter schools, vouchers and standardized testing, as well as demotion of teachers and administrators who fail to achieve set criteria — is interesting, in the way that ideological conversions often are. With due respect to Dr. Ravitch, however, and most other writers who follow the debate, “school accountability” is a misnomer. Public schools are now and always have been accountable.  The so-called “accountability” movement only wants to make them less so.

As every schoolchild likes to say, America is a free country. That is, parents have the right to settle in whatever school district they choose.  (They also have a constitutional right to send their children to private school if they wish.) Predictably, therefore, those families willing to pay the most for a good education gravitate to the best schools, the “price” of which is reflected in the cost of real estate and local property taxes, while the families that care the least about education gravitate to the worst.  Meanwhile, the extent to which parents value education itself enhances (or degrades) school quality, as schools are always more likely to thrive when they can attract the families with the highest social capital. Thus, good schools and “good” (that is, education-valuing) families cluster together.  So long as Americans enjoy freedom of movement, supply and demand will always tend to produce a huge gap between successful and failing schools. The outcome is basically fair and not altogether inefficient.

America’s public schools are one example of how even governments, when subject to market discipline, can produce a superior product. Compare Soviet arms during the Cold War.  The Soviets excelled at producing weapons because otherwise foreign governments wouldn’t have purchased them.  Similarly, some public schools consistently excel, because otherwise they could not attract the best parents and students, thereby allowing those schools to excel, thereby attracting more good parents and students, and so on in a virtuous cycle.  In both cases, governments — in contrast to the usual rule — have had to compete for customers.

The “accountability” movement, however, wishes to match customers with schools as planners, rather than the customers themselves, deem fit. School vouchers, for example, a favorite policy of “accountability” proponents, punish those very school systems that have already worked very hard, thank you very much, to attract the best students and most civic-minded parents. (It’s no surprise that vouchers have proven to be politically unpopular, including if not especially among Republican voters.) Similarly, shutting down failing schools and redistributing their students punishes those schools that have performed marginally better and thereby attracted marginally better students and parents. The “accountability” movement, in short, wants to equalize the quality of educational products, no matter the price paid for them.  Whatever this merits of this policy, it surely does not show much faith in the free market.

Finally, I must commend Dr. Ravitch’s editor on the choice of title for her new book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System.  Although to invite comparisons to Jane Jacobs’ classic, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, smacks of hubris, in this case the comparison is apt.  Jacobs identified the hidden mechanisms that make city neighborhoods work but which well-meaning modern planners had overlooked.  For example, Jacobs found that mixed-use neighborhoods are safer, for shopkeepers’ constant watch on the sidewalks tends to discourage mischief.  By contrast, super-blocks, high rises and office towers suck life out of the streets, thereby making them more menacing places.

Similarly, there is a hidden mechanism that makes the American School System work, and which modern planners ignore — namely, freedom of movement, which creates a well-functioning market for public education.  Planners such as “accountability” advocates who want to turn bad schools into good ones (and, often, by implication, vice versa), no matter what their scheme, are doomed to disappointment.  Admittedly, Dr. Ravitch, who seems to believe that everyone is entitled to a good education no matter how little she is willing to pay for it, probably rejects this thesis. Moreover, it does not appear that Dr. Ravitch even identifies, Jacobs-like, the hidden mechanisms that make public education in the United States so much better than planners give it credit for.  Still, I do like the title.  Perhaps Dr. Ravitch’s editor was thinking of something the author wasn’t.