File Photo: Betsy DeVos testifies before the Senate Health, Education and Labor Committee confirmation hearing to be next Secretary of Education on Capitol...
YURI GRIPAS

DeVos: Picking schools should be like picking Uber, Lyft, or taxis

Updated
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ outspoken support for privatizing public schools out of existence isn’t exactly new, but the Republican cabinet secretary shared an analogy this week that stood out as notable.

DeVos spoke at the Brookings Institution in support of so-called “school choice,” a conservative euphemism for school vouchers, though her timing could’ve been better. The New York Times reported just last month, “[E]ven as school choice is poised to go national, a wave of new research has emerged suggesting that private school vouchers may harm students who receive them. The results are startling – the worst in the history of the field, researchers say…. It’s rare to see efforts to improve test scores having the opposite result.”

Nevertheless, DeVos remains committed to her privatization crusade, and made the following pitch:
“How many of you got here today in an Uber, or Lyft, or another ridesharing service? Did you choose that because it was more convenient than hoping a taxi would drive by? … Just as the traditional taxi system revolted against ridesharing, so too does the education establishment feel threatened by the rise of school choice. In both cases, the entrenched status quo has resisted models that empower individuals.

“Nobody mandates that you take an Uber over a taxi, nor should they. But if you think ridesharing is the best option for you, the government shouldn’t get in your way.

“The truth is that in practice, people like having more options. They like being able to choose between Uber Pool, Uber X, Lyft Line, Lyft Plus, and many others. Or when it comes to taking a family trip, many like options such as Airbnb.

“We celebrate the benefits of choices in transportation and lodging. But doesn’t that pale in comparison to the importance of educating the future of our country? Why do we not allow parents to exercise that same right to choice [sic] in the education of their child?”
Taken at face value, I imagine many at the Brookings Institution event probably found this quite compelling. If you don’t stop to think about it, giving people a “choice” sounds like an inherent good that should be applied broadly, even to education.

So let’s take a minute to explain why DeVos’ rhetoric is fundamentally flawed.

The idea that families don’t have educational choices is, by and large, plainly wrong. Nationwide, parents can send their child or children to a public school, for a free quality education. In much of the country, if parents prefer, they can also choose between private, parochial, or charter schools. If none of those are appealing, many families home-school their kids.

But wait, DeVos would probably say, those varied options may exist in theory, but in practice, many Americans can’t afford private education. That’s true. It’s also where her ridesharing analogy starts to break down.

For many low-income Americans who can’t afford a car, “choices in transportation” don’t really exist. Those folks can walk, bike, or take a bus. Taxis and ridesharing may sound nice, but for those who struggle economically, they’re not a realistic “choice.”

DeVos, as best as I can tell, isn’t recommending taxpayer-funded vouchers to help those Americans subsidize their taxi and/or ridesharing choices, motivated by some kind of hostility towards municipal bus networks. She simply assumes that people with more resources will have greater transportation options than people with fewer resources – just as the wealthy have more choices in housing, health care, nutrition, technology, clothing, recreation, and many other aspects of modern American life.

If the Education Secretary were calling for governments to invest taxpayer money into taxis and ridesharing, so that those who rely on buses and bikes can take better advantage of their “choices in transportation,” we’d be having a different kind of conversation. But DeVos, like many on the right, wants to give low-income Americans taxpayer money to choose privatized education – and just privatized education.

OK, so maybe DeVos’ vision is overly myopic. But so what? Why not treat education and transportation as comparable service commodities?

The answer is that the two have very little in common. If you want to turn to taxis and ridesharing to get to where you’re going, you pay a fare. It’s a business venture that relies on profit. If you want to turn to a school to educate you child or children, it’s a very different model, at least if you rely on the public-education system, which doesn’t even try to turn a profit because the kids don’t pay tuition.

Even private schools operate in fundamentally different ways. Imagine, before you could take advantage of a ridesharing service, you had to pass an entrance exam. Or had to profess certain religious beliefs. Or faced discrimination based on your sexual orientation. That would be absurd, of course, with Uber or Lyft, but in private education, parochial schools have operated this way for decades.

Making matters slightly worse, in DeVos’ model, even if your child or children can pass the exams and meet the private school’s related standards, the voucher DeVos would hand you may not cover the full cost of tuition – which means you’d be headed back to the public school system that would suddenly have many of its best students taken away as a result of the privatization/choice scheme.

Other than all of these flaws and all of the actual evidence, though, the Education Secretary’s analogy makes perfect sense.

Education Policy, School Vouchers and Vouchers

DeVos: Picking schools should be like picking Uber, Lyft, or taxis

Updated