‘The Baptists and the Bootleggers’ and religious charter schools

Last week we discussed the Oklahoma attorney general’s advisory opinion against enforcement of the state’s prohibition on religious charter schools. After reading up on the subject, I declared myself president of the “Religious Charter Schools are Permissible, Mandatory and a Bad Idea” Club. My view on this is not motivated by apocalyptic opposition (Europe has the equivalent of religious charters) but on practicality. The path to religious charter schools goes through years of litigation which, even if successful, will find itself (all too easily) thwarted by the Baptist/Bootlegger coalition.

Before proceeding let me again repeat it is a travesty that school finance systems discriminate against families desiring a religious education, and we need to end that discrimination. Moreover, what I am about to describe below is not how I want the charter world to operate. Far from it. Also, again, I am open to challenge on all of this. It should be debated vigorously. Okay, let’s go.

Russ Roberts often references the “Baptists and the Bootleggers” problem during interviews on his invaluable EconTalk podcast. It is an idea from the economic study of regulation that is easy to grasp: both Baptists and bootleggers support the prohibition on the sale of alcohol, but for very different reasons. Baptists oppose the sale of alcohol for religious reasons, whereas bootleggers, those who create/import/sell alcohol illegally, support prohibition as a means of limiting their competition. Bootleggers are going to sell alcohol regardless, but they make bigger profits by restricting others from competing with them.

Charter school authorization in most states around the country, including Oklahoma, obviously suffers from a Baptist and the bootlegger malady. The “Baptists” in this case are teachers’ unions and the rogue’s gallery of fellow travelers who don’t want any charter schools at all. They have a great deal of political power. The bootleggers are at least as much if not a greater problem. With regards to charters, bootleggers make claims of being greatly concerned with “quality authorizing” but one need only be realistic rather than cynical in noting that “quality authorizing” has much more to do with limiting competition for incumbent charters than it does “quality.”

Quality of course is in the eye of the beholder, and our means for assessing it in the context of schooling has been quite primitive. Also, the self-serving “quality” rules can look awfully arbitrary and stupid with the slightest bit of examination. For example, Arizona has a charter school with a rate of academic growth rate 98.6% above the national average, which would have been in danger of closure if Arizona lawmakers had been gullible enough to adopt a default five-year closure law (a favorite of charter bootleggers).

As Lisa Graham Keegan explained:

Moreover, Arizona’s “wild” charter journey led to many low-income, highly performing charter management organizations that can only be found in the Grand Canyon State. Many are community-focused and community-developed, which we all say that we want, but their first priority was on stabilizing the communities they grew from. In other words, they weren’t very good academically to start—but they did transform their neighborhoods, and parents trusted these new schools with their precious children over many other options that went out of business due to lack of enrollment. Years later, many of them, like Academies of Math and ScienceMexicayotl Academy, and Espiritu Schools, are now among the top performing schools in not just the state, but in the country, and were highlighted in last week’s Education Equality Index. The thing is it took a decade to do that. And we Arizonans let it happen.

The Baptist/Bootlegger Charter Alliance has been, alas, devastatingly effective around the country. A whole string of states has passed charter school statutes in recent years — states like Washington, Alabama, Kentucky, and Mississippi. National charter school groups have sung the praises of these laws, but then, they produce few actual charter schools. In Kentucky’s case, no charter schools. The “Baptists” don’t want any charter schools, and the “Bootleggers” only want charters from their own organizations to operate, and the compromise lands on few charters opening.

Oklahoma, for instance, passed its charter law in 1999, and the Oklahoma Charter Schools Association lists 30 or so charters operating in the state, which looks to be a net gain of 1.5 schools per year. The Baptist/Bootlegger coalition effectively wants few if any charter schools to open, and it won’t be overly difficult for coalition members to agree on a dislike of charter schools teaching religion as truth.

Years of litigation awaits the would-be religious charter school operator, the result of which may vary across jurisdictions. Regardless of how that plays out, the Baptist/Bootlegger coalition will be waiting. They’ve had to be barely creative (900-page applications, etc.) to throttle charter school growth, and motivated by a shared distaste for religious charter schools, I’m guessing they will get insidious if necessary.

Nonetheless, there will be those who make the attempt. My advice to you dear reader: Don’t be one of them. Your energies will be better rewarded elsewhere. As Sun Tzu wrote: “A victorious general wins and then seeks battle, a defeated army seeks battle and then seeks victory.” Even if you survive the courts, the B/B Alliance will be there to finish you off.




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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.

One Comment

Charter management organizations (full disclosure: I managed charters for a network that has gone national, Green Dot Public Schools) will do better to remain religiously independent, while schools that want to transform upper secondary education in the United States, which is so desperately needed, will do better to establish themselves under private law, to remain clear of democratic politicians who constantly calculate that they can gain more votes by lowering graduation requirements than they can by optimizing state standards, at least in American culture.

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