School Choice, Uber and Accountability

By Larry Sand
April 4, 2017

Betsy DeVos’ ridesharing analogy is spot on, but draws Randi’s wrath.

 At the Brookings Institution last week, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos gave a talk in which she drew parallels between school choice and the ascendancy of ridesharing companies like Uber and Lyft. “Just as the traditional taxi systems 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.”

DeVos’ comparison sent American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten into a snit, fuming in a tweet that DeVos’ comments are “incredibly tone deaf and shocking.” Then, she added, “Is she equating kids to cab riders & teachers are drivers? Cab drivers are hard-working pros, but teachers have advanced degrees to teach.”

First, Devos did not “equate” anything. She simply made an analogy. And the advanced degree crack is misguided, as not all teachers have them, and many of them that do could have learned more about how to teach kids by driving a cab than by going to a school of education. (Having spent time in ed school, the classroom and the front seat of a taxi, trust me on this one.)

The union boss can say whatever she wants, but the analogy is apt, if not original. In 2014, NRO’s Jim Geraghty wrote a piece on education in which he claimed that “Our problems today are massive. We need solutions to match.” He suggested that we need a complete overhaul of our education system on a grand scale and at a rapid pace, and that “we need an Uber for failing schools.”

Most recently, Jason Bedrick, Director of Policy at EdChoice, wrote a blog post on the subject in which he states, “Real Accountability Is Choice, Not Regulation.” Bedrick is, of course, correct and the title of his piece points to the heart of the Big Guv-Big Union v. School Choice debate.

According to the bureaucrats, technocrats, Randi Weingarten and other establishment types, we need a zillion rules and government regulations so that providers of transportation, education, etc. can be held “accountable.” But as Bedrick points out, “Clearly Uber and Lyft drivers are much more accountable than taxi drivers because they are directly accountable to the consumer. Passengers rate their drivers based on the quality of their experience, so drivers tend to work hard to ensure that passengers have a good experience.” My involvement with Uber backs Bedrick up. No government-regulated monopoly taxi company ever asked about my experience with a driver. The Uber cars I have ridden in tend to be cleaner, with friendlier and more dependable drivers than city-run taxis. And when was the last time a city-run taxi driver told you in a text message exactly when he was going to pick you up?

Bedrick best sums up his position by saying, “… true accountability is when service providers are directly answerable to the people most affected by their performance.” He then quotes the great Thomas Sowell, “It is hard to imagine a more stupid or more dangerous way of making decisions than by putting those decisions in the hands of people who pay no price for being wrong.”

So when decisions need to be made about your child’s education, who should be in the driver’s seat (pun intended) – you, or a faceless, nameless, unaccountable government bureaucrat? I think the answer is obvious, but the central planners are adamant. In response to DeVos’ Uber comment, Madison Gray, an intern with Education Reform Now, writes, “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.”

Considering the state of public education in the U.S. today, how anyone can suggest with a straight face that what we have now is “producing valuable student outcomes?”  Here in California, our recent NAEP scores revealed that our students are at or near the bottom in nearly every category. Maybe those “adequate regulations and safeguards” haven’t quite reached the left coast yet.

It is worth noting that Uber has had some difficulties, which provided the taxi monopoly and like-minded folks with an “I-told-ya-so” moment. In 2015, it seems that the company hired some drivers with criminal records. But to Uber’s credit, they quickly revamped their background checking mechanism. (Important personal note: Please do not assume that your yellow-cab driver is a saint; I have known violent felons, drug dealers, thieves and other scoundrels who have passed muster with the government run monopoly.)

A major problem with Uber, from the unions’ perspective, is their inability thus far to organize the drivers, who are independent contractors. It is similar to the school choice problem for the unions, as it is very difficult to organize private school teachers; they’d have to do it one independent school at a time.

Like Uber, school choice is indeed a way to empower individuals. It is a godsend for many parents whose children are stuck in public education hellholes – chock-full of rules, regulations and phonebook-sized contracts, which often lead to a quality-blind seniority system and impossible-to-fire teachers. Given that, the education establishmentarians have some nerve insisting that giving parents real choices leads to unaccountability. That line of thinking may draw a chuckle on April 1st, but on the remaining 364 days it’s a pathetic and utter crock.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.

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