(Guest post by Greg Forster)
Andy Smarick’s proposal for private choice school authorizers deserves a closer look. I can understand why at first it might prompt smart people like Jason Bedrick to cry out, as Matt put it, “get your charter law off me, you dirty ape!” But in the original report, Smarick doesn’t flesh out the idea in detail, and we all know who’s in the details. There are certainly some ways of designing such authorizers that would lead me to join Jason’s outcry against them. But there are also possible ways of designing them that would make me say, “I can siiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiing!”
Authorizers could improve rather than hinder the regulatory regime of private choice schools, if a few key points were observed:
- The creation of authorizers must be accompanied by the removal of the arbitrary, meaningless restrictions on school startups that currently prevail in many choice programs. In Louisiana, you have to have already been operating for three years before you’re eligible! Why not just stick a sign in the window that says “No Startups Need Apply”? These restrictions are put in choice programs to protect existing private school systems from healthy competition. They’re one of the worst problems with existing school choice programs, because the ability to attract educational entrepreneurs who create new kinds of schools, not just another iteration of the same mediocre systems we have now, is the real key to advancing education through choice. If there is any kind of sanity in the process (I know, I know) the creation of authorizers must be accompanied by the removal of all these outrageous restrictions. Protecting us from fly-by-night shysters is what we have the authorizers for.
- While we’re at it, if we create authorizers we should also be able to get, in return, programs that are more broadly designed to attract entrepreneurs rather than simply to service the existing private school system. No more $1,000 scholarships that do no more than grease the wheels for people to attend existing private schools.
- It would be critical to have multiple authorizers, the more the better. School startups that get turned down by one could go to another. Meanwhile, the blob would have great difficulty neutralizing or colonizing more than a handful of the authorizers, so the majority would remain free.
- Combining #1-3, there should be several authorizers whose specific mission is to attract entrepreneurs who want to create new kinds of schools. By all means, let the diocese be an authorizer. But there should also be authorizers tasked with attracting and approving responsible entrepreneurs.
- There should also be a process for creating new authorizers that doesn’t require new legislation. That way the pool can be regularly refreshed with new choice-friendly authorizers every time the friends of choice are in power. The optimal plan is not so much to prevent the authorizers from being neutralized or colonized, though we should do that if we can, as to make it easy for people who support choice to create a raft of new authorizers every time they’re in power.
- Authorizers should be a locus of brand identity, and thus choice-based accountability. Everyone should know which schools are authorized by whom, so parents can reward the good authorizers and punish the bad ones. The more we encourage that, the less coercive accountability we will need.
And, of course, there is no need for the authorizer route to be strictly alternative to the traditional route. It could be both/and – schools are admitted to choice programs in the traditional way if they meet the traditional (ridiculous) requirements, but authorizers are added on as an additional way to approve schools for participation if they don’t meet those requirements.