“Dr. Zaius, Dr. Zaius! Oh, Ohhhh, Dr. Zaius!”

(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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

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8 Responses to “Dr. Zaius, Dr. Zaius! Oh, Ohhhh, Dr. Zaius!”

  1. both this article and the Fordham Institute article have the details defined within a system of predatory capitalism that is highly objectionable to many of us.
    Deregulation, the marketization of society, the glorification of profit and the contempt for public goods and values, provides the ideological and political support needed for the “financialization” of the economy and the undermining of the real economy.
    You illustrations of how to work the structures to your own best interests are abhorrent whether from j . P. Greene and University of Walton or Fordham Institute (which has nothing to do with Fordham University)…..

  2. Jason Bedrick says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful reply, Greg. A few quick points in response:

    1) Sure, that sounds great, but repealing those bad regulations doesn’t require creating a new (and more powerful) government agency.

    2) See #1.

    3) Multiple authorizers would be better than just one, though I’m still not persuaded it’s better than zero.

    4) In a sense, the diocese is already an authorizer of the Catholic schools in its domain… they just don’t have the authority to direct public funds. And as much as I reject the notion that allowing families to use vouchers at religious schools violates the First Amendment, this does seem quite a bit closer to doing what the Establishment Clause forbids. Again though, more details needed.

    5) That’s a good idea that would alleviate a number of my concerns about the potential for politics to wreak havoc on private schools. I should note, however, that Smarick was proposing a *single* government agency with members appointed by the governor or other elected officials. That’s a very far cry from what you’re proposing here.

    6) This sounds great — what exactly prevents the market from doing this right now?

    • Greg Forster says:

      1) On the contrary, in politics you usually have to give something to get something. And you are begging the question when you assert the authorizers would be “more powerful” because my argument is that they could be designed to be less intrusive than the status quo. Also, new program design could be informed by this discussion – authorizers might head off the introduction of worse regulations.

      2) See #1. 🙂

      3) Re-read my post until you are persuaded.

      4) Why do you think so? But of course if that’s the case, what will end up happening (and I think this would be just fine) is the people at the diocese would simply create an agency that would serve as the de facto diocese authorizer.

      5) Really? Where does he say that? He was proposing that we learn lessons from charter programs, and the good charter programs have multiple authorizers.

      6) Easy: Right now you can create groups and call them “authorizers” but they don’t have the ability to direct public funds.

      • Jason Bedrick says:

        1) The question is whether this is something worth getting. And yes, you argue for a less powerful authorizer but the proposal that I was critiquing called for authorizers that had the power to be much more intrusive than any SEA to date.

        4) The Establishment Clause was originally intended to forbid paying taxes to a church. I see no issue with people using voucher funds at whatever school they choose, religious or secular, but giving a religious institution the authority to determine which schools qualify for public funds strikes me as crossing the line. Again though, I’d have to see the details.

        5) The “independent agency” (separate from the private authorizers) proposed on pages 15-16, particularly the first full paragraph on 16.

        6) Besides the public funds, obviously. In a voucher program, pretty much all schools are eligible to receive vouchers–why not have organizations that give their seal of approval to schools that meet certain criteria. There would still be the benefit of branding and parents rewarding/punishing given brands.

  3. matthewladner says:

    Worth recalling the Indy and LA 30% private school participation rates:

    • Greg Forster says:

      Authorizers could raise that if they provided an alternative way into the program that chucked the stupid regulatory barriers to entry.

  4. mike g says:

    Per Jason (are multiple better than zero)…

    Do the types of folks attracted to authorizer jobs scare you at all? Hey, some of my best friends are authorizers! Nothing personal!

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