Betsy, Can We Really ‘Uber’-ize Public Education? Here’s Why That’s a Terrible Idea.

This morning, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos delivered a keynote address at the Brookings Institution for the Center on Children and Families’ release of its fifth annual Education Choice and Competition Index (ECCI)—a ranking of school choice in the nation’s 100 largest school districts. During the address DeVos made a strange comparison—she compared the movement for more school options, public charter schools and publicly funded private schools, to the likes of Uber and Lyft. She commented, "Just like the traditional taxi system revolted against ride-sharing, so too did the traditional education establishment revolt against school choice." She went on to say:
The government shouldn't get in your way. People want options.
I agree that people should have options—and especially parents when it comes to choosing the right schools for their children. But even as I agree with the need for school choice, I know that it’s not going to work for our kids if it isn’t matched with accountability.

Can Uber’s Accountability Model Work for Public Education?

Companies like Uber and Lyft have fundamentally changed the landscape of a formerly familiar marketplace. The taxi industry has long been the sole proprietor of transportation and yet a collision of technology, an open market and trust has quickly changed the game. Consumers are making the trade from highly regulated, institutionally-owned entities to a more relaxed environment based on loose community accountability. Institutional legitimacy matters less and less as the consumer has started putting their trust (and their dollars) in the personal cars of strangers rather than companies and businesses. Simple measures of accountability, such as ratings and reviews, have sufficed to keep people coming back to the innovative platforms. So if this new model of local accountability and reduced regulation has worked so well for this market, can it also work for education? In other words, can we “Uber”-ize public education? That’s certainly the line of thinking behind free market and school voucher advocates. The Trump administration has made it no secret early on that they plan to reduce the federal government’s role in education and instead let students “vote with their feet” via a wildly ambitious voucher system. They argue that with a voucher system in place, allowing students to take their share of funding to whichever school they want, competition is introduced into the education market, driving schools to do better. Also, by giving control back to the state and local governments, we can avoid a one-size-fits-all problem and allow districts to choose how they want to hold their schools accountable.

Playing a Game of Risk With Our Children’s Fate

But here’s the thing: Without adequate regulations and safeguards in place to ensure that this system is producing valuable student outcomes, there’s no protecting these students from providers who are not meeting their needs and or doing them harm. Not even Uber could sustain the laissez-faire model it originated from. Consider the flood of regulations that’s already built into the company’s platform: the driver must be licensed, the car must be insured, and the car must pass safety and emissions standards. That’s not even mentioning the fact that drivers are already required to adhere to inherent “rules of the road,” like stopping at stop signs or red lights. Beyond this, Uber has had to constantly adapt due to regulation pressure surrounding issues such as passenger safety and appropriate employee compensation. If you go to www.whosdrivingyou.org, you can find an extensive list of reported deaths, assaults, sexual assaults, kidnappings, felons, imposters and driver DUIs related to Uber and Lyft. One particularly graphic event occurred after a passenger tracked snow into an Uber. The driver later waited for the man outside of his apartment where he beat the man repeatedly with a baton, leaving him with a black eye, bruises and nine stitches in his head. Meanwhile, private schools generally have immunity from the “rules of the road” that public schools are required to follow. They don’t have to screen adults they hire, nor are they required to abide by state academic standards or assessments. This puts children not only in academic jeopardy, but in possible physical danger as well.

Getting Lost in a Crappy Uber Is Not the Same as Getting Lost in a Crappy School for Years

In poorly regulated school choice programs, many educational providers are playing a game of risk with our children’s futures at stake. Getting lost in a crappy Uber for a couple minutes is nothing compared to getting lost in a crappy school for a couple years. The potential consequences of gambling with public education not only affect the lives of students, but also threaten the very security of our nation. They reach far beyond the “Oops, guess I’m going to be late to the party.” For instance, in Michigan, where DeVos hails from, 77 public charter schools have closed since 2010 due to issues of financial and/or academic viability. Some even closed a mere five months after opening! One-third of these closures were in the struggling city of Detroit, where 94 percent of students are failing to meet proficiency in a national benchmark assessment. As one community leader stated:
Detroit’s [educational] market place is as unregulated and unmanaged as any in the country… It’s like a flea market… anyone can set up a table to sell their magic, and anyone can come shopping and make a deal, but buyer beware.
This educational system is not what a city already too familiar with economic turmoil needs.

There’s No App That Apologizes for Your 1-Star-Rating and Offers You a New School

Lastly, the argument that data transparency, like Uber reviews and ratings, is enough to hold schools, districts and states accountable is laughable. Not only does it shift the burden of action entirely on parents and the public to interpret the data, it also doesn’t repair the underlying issues with the institution itself. There’s no app that apologizes for your 1-star rating and then just voluntarily offers you a different school to make up for your bad experience. This transparency is just not sufficient enough to ensure minimal student outcomes and protections for vulnerable students who may have disabilities, are learning English or are from low-income families and/or minority backgrounds. As we’ve already seen with Uber, every market needs regulation, even in the 21st-century of innovation. However, what’s most concerning, and what we must remember, is the fact that education is not a business. We are trying to cultivate a quality of life, not accumulate quantities of dollars.
Madison Gray is a research and communications intern with Education Reform Now. She is currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and sociology-organizations and institutions, and a master’s degree in public policy-education as a senior at the University of Maryland-College Park. With Education Reform Now, she has researched and written on topics related to public charter schools and ...

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