Friday, February 25, 2022

Bootleggers, Baptists, and school choice

Credit: Unknown photographer, Orange County Archives, "Sheriff dumps bootleg booze," CC BY 2.0

[Guest post by Robert Ruiz, executive director of ChoiceMatters]

In 1983, Federal Trade Commission executive director Bruce Yandle published a colorful essay entitled “Bootleggers and Baptists: The Education of a Regulatory Economist.” In his piece, and subsequent works on the subject, Yandle explained:

Durable social regulation evolves when it is demanded by both of two distinctly different groups. “Baptists” point to the moral high ground and give vital and vocal endorsement of laudable public benefits promised by a desired regulation. Baptists flourish when their moral message forms a visible foundation for political action. “Bootleggers” are much less visible but no less vital. Bootleggers, who expect to profit from the very regulatory restrictions desired by Baptists, grease the political machinery with some of their expected proceeds. They are simply in it for the money.

In the Prohibition era, Baptists were the standard bearers in the charge to ban alcohol, railing against the evils of drinking and the obvious impact on physical health and well-being. But it was the bootleggers, who became rich when Prohibition granted them an (illegal) monopoly on booze, who were really pulling the levers of power, whispering into the ears of pliable politicians.

Yandle argues that most movements, not just the temperance movement of the early 20th century, have their Baptists and their bootleggers. This holds true in the debate over school choice and, most recently, the Oklahoma Empowerment Act (SB 1647), which seeks to give every parent a portion of their state education tax dollars to be used for either private school tuition or homeschooling expenses.

In this case, with due respect to teachers and superintendents who have important and noble jobs, the professional unions who represent their interests are the obvious choice for the role of bootleggers. The source of their wealth and influence comes directly from their monopolistic control of the public education system. In a world where 90% or more of students go to their assigned public school, where only the wealthy can “opt out,” the power and the revenue stream of these unions goes unchallenged and unchecked. If parents do not have the legal or financial means to leave a school they feel is a poor fit for their child, then the status quo will never change and the adults who make money off the current system will continue to make their money.

Homeschool parents, on the other hand, have often been the strongest voices opposing the status quo—mainly because so many turned to homeschooling only after it became clear that the current system was failing their kids. That is why it has been surprising to see at least some of these parents, who have been longtime school choice supporters, now being co-opted by teachers’ unions and campaigning against the Oklahoma Empowerment Act.

These parents believe, incorrectly, that allowing the state government to help support anyone’s homeschooling expenses would somehow expose their own homeschooling practices to increased government oversight. In their minds, they have opted out of a government-run system and don’t want any form of government involvement, even financial assistance.

These parents’ voices are now being shared and amplified on social media by the very people who have ridiculed them and worked to limit their options for decades: teachers' unions and other organized interests in the public education bureaucracy. As sad as it is to say, this vocal minority of homeschooling parents have become the Baptists in Yandle’s analogy, a righteous front group whose sincerely held beliefs are being co-opted by entrenched and nefarious special interests that do not share their convictions or selfless goals.

My plea to these parents is twofold: first, examine the substance of SB 1647. It does not compel any parent to accept any state funds for either private school or homeschool. It does not compel any homeschooling parent to adopt new curricula or to do anything differently than they do today. In fact, the rights and autonomous nature of those who choose to homeschool are protected in our state constitution. SB 1647 simply offers to return a portion of a parents’ state tax dollars—at least $3,500—to support homeschooling expenses. This is for parents who struggle to pay for textbooks, computers, and things like museum memberships to be able to offer those things to their kids. It is not a stealth attempt by the government to control how homeschool parents teach or how homeschool students think. To the contrary, SB 1647 serves as the ultimate form of deregulation and small-government thinking, taking money away from a highly regulated bureaucracy and placing it directly in the hands of parents.

Second, remember who your friends and allies are. In Yandle’s analogy, the bootleggers form an unlikely alliance with the Baptists until they get power over the very things the Baptists despise the most, laughing all the way to the bank. Similarly, teachers’ unions will discard homeschooling parents once they get what they want—a win for the status quo and another loss for those who believe in school choice and parental empowerment.

The authors of the Oklahoma Empowerment Act are fighting for the rights of all parents, especially homeschooling parents. The sooner these parents realize that, the more likely they are to be the beneficiaries of a decisive and impactful win for school choice.

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