Heavy-Handed Rules Keep Minority Operators From Opening Charter Schools

By Greg Forster

You often hear that school choice is the new civil rights movement, but not often enough to get the point across to the powers-that-be in education.

Ian Kingsbury of the University of Arkansas kicked up a small storm recently when he released findings that heavy regulation of charter schools is associated with lower rates of participation by ethnic minority charter school operators.

While charters are just one part of the school choice spectrum, their experience provides invaluable insight for the broader school choice movement. Unfortunately, some people can’t get past the idea that they know best what’s right for other people’s kids — especially when those “other people” don’t look like the folks who often make the rules. Instead of listening to communities that most need educational options, the privileged elite make the system more difficult to navigate for those trying to make a difference.

Kingsbury looked at the charter regulations recommended by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA). This group represents the agencies — government and private — that have the power to approve and oversee charter schools. Heavier regulation gives them more power, so naturally they’re in favor of all kinds of restrictions: mandatory processes and hoops to jump through, with opportunities for arbitrary interference at every step and heavy sanctions for those who don’t do what they’re told.

Kingsbury found that states ranked higher by NACSA for having “high quality” charter regimes (i.e. heavier regulation) approved fewer charter schools from Black and Hispanic applicants. The charter sector is already dominated by wealthy white progressives. While I applaud their desire to improve education, they tend to be prone to a paternalistic assumption that they know best. I don’t think government interference should give them an effective cartel over educational entrepreneurship, squeezing out minority and community-based operators.

If you’re wondering why the education status quo wants heavy regulation, ask yourself why Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg asked Congress to regulate social media: Regulation cements the power of dominant providers, shutting out smaller and less powerful rivals. That’s why heavy regulation does so much damage to minority communities. They have less political power to influence the content of regulations — which more powerful providers can shape in their own favor — and less ability to afford the enormous cost of compliance.

There might be some case for such regulations — although I’d still oppose them on freedom grounds — if they had any kind of track record of improving educational outcomes. However, for years the evidence has gone the other way. The latest data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, for example, show Louisiana’s heavily regulated choice sector is actually losing ground while Arizona’s so-called “wild west” choice programs, with more reasonable levels of regulation, are blowing the roof off.

Giving government bureaucracies the power over schools of choice makes those schools look more like the mediocre schools run by that bureaucracy. Why would you expect anything else? It’s like giving McDonald’s the power to impose regulations on In-N-Out and expecting the quality of the burgers at In-N-Out to go up.

It goes without saying that schools of choice should be subject to health and safety regulations. They already are, along with many other, unnecessary regulations to boot. All the irresponsible rhetoric from defenders of the status quo about “unregulated” schools can’t change the reality that schools of choice are over-regulated, not under-regulated. And the people who suffer most, as always, are those in the minority who are trying to make gains within a system that’s chronically been stacked against them.

Greg Forster, Ph.D. is a Friedman fellow with EdChoice.

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