Panel Paper: Public Oversight of Private Provision of a Public Good

Friday, November 9, 2012 : 1:20 PM
Hanover A (Radisson Plaza Lord Baltimore Hotel)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Joshua Cowen, University of Kentucky, David Fleming, Furman University and Deven Carlson, University of Oklahoma

An emphasis on measuring agency performance is well-established in the public administration literature. Empirical studies have focused on assessing the effectiveness of a variety of systems both in the United States and abroad, including those administering welfare services, job training programs, health care delivery, and public education.  More recently, studies have begun to examine the effectiveness of potential strategies for increasing agency performance, with a primary focus on the impacts of performance reporting and accountability systems. Whether such schemes can consistently generate positive impacts on agency outcomes is a still a debate, in part because agency response to the implementation of performance reporting and accountability systems remains unclear.  On one hand, the threat of budgetary reductions, administrative sanction, the embarrassment of public attention to poor performance, or intrinsic motivation to improve may result in accountability programs leading to more efficient performance. On the other hand, agencies may respond to the implementation of accountability systems by focusing on outputs that do not actually reflect performance, strategic gaming to manipulate results, and even cheating.

            Public education agencies (i.e. schools and school districts) have served as the source of a number of the primary empirical tests for accountability impacts, as well as more general questions in administration and management. Although many studies have indicated at least some potential for positive results of implementing performance reporting programs, this evidence is drawn almost exclusively from examples of traditionally organized public school districts. Alternative systems of delivering education have become increasingly common in the United States, with the most prominent examples being charter schools and publicly-supported vouchers that students can use to attend private schools. Despite the growing number of these alternatives to traditional public schools, despite a considerable body of scholarship on differences associated with these alternatives in educational outcomes, and despite the more general evidence of accountability impacts in public education, little is known about any effects of performance reporting and accountability in such schools of “choice.” Voucher programs represent a particularly important gap in this literature, in part because such initiatives are similar at least in principle to the privatization of other governmental services. Moreover, oversight of publicly supported private schools has been essentially non-existent. In this paper, we consider new evidence from a recent exception to that pattern: a high-stakes accountability program implemented for voucher-serving private schools in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The specifics of our results are nuanced, but the basic pattern is clear: students who attended private schools via a publicly funded voucher exhibited dramatically higher achievement after the implementation of a high-stakes performance reporting and accountability program.