‘Lord of the Rings’ paraphrased: One board to rule them all and in the darkness bind them

Last week, I documented the sad decline of charter school laws passed since 2000 if you actually want laws to produce charter school seats. If you prefer to mostly go through the motions of having a “charter law” without many actual schools, or in Kentucky’s case any charter schools, then the post-2000 laws have been a rousing success.

Mistakes are not, however, limited to initial laws and a rediscovery of some guiding principles for charter schooling seems long overdue.

Adam Smith wrote: “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.”

He went on to explain that these conspiracies cannot succeed without the use of government. Thus, charter schooling fell under the sway of a Baptist and Bootlegger coalition and has been ailing ever since.

The Baptist and Bootlegger coalition aims not just to limit competition for district schools, but also competition for preexisting charter schools. Let’s simply observe that some charter organizations have a legal department to cut and paste sections of their last 800-page application into a new 800-page application. They can then assert, without any backing evidence mind you, that such an ability is an indicator of “quality.”

The charter movement, if vitality is to be regained, must rediscover a dedication to competition. Currently, parents are clamoring for new private school legislation and seem relatively indifferent to charter school legislation. Given that decades have passed since a state passed a charter law creating more than a mere smidge of charter school seats, one can hardly blame them.

Multiple sources of authorization constitute a key design feature of charter legislation, and one that charter advocates have inadequately communicated to legislators. For example, Oklahoma legislators are currently considering revamping their charter authorization practices. The legislation creates an alternative to school district authorization (which is good) but only creates one such alternative, which is not so good.

Oklahoma lawmakers will have to think deeper if they are to avoid the fate of lawmakers in Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi, Washington and others who passed charter legislation only later to ask: Where’s the seats?

Originally, the thought behind multiple authorizers was to stop the Baptists (in this case unions and their fellow travelers) from cutting off authorization. Now, charter advocates must guard against this and Bossy McBootleggerpants from undermining charter authorization.

It’s been two decades since a state passed a charter school law that managed to somewhat thwart the B/B coalition. Let’s hope Oklahoma will consider starting a new trend.

Avatar photo

BY Matthew Ladner

Matthew Ladner is executive editor of NextSteps. He has written numerous studies on school choice, charter schools and special education reform, and his articles have appeared in Education Next; the Catholic Education: A Journal of Inquiry and Practice; and the British Journal of Political Science. He is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin and received a master's degree and a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Houston. He lives in Phoenix with his wife and three children.