In case you missed them, here are some recent comments by Betsy DeVos:
“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…. 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 in the education of their child?”
This is a long quote, but I wanted to capture it in detail. The words represent the basic and fundamental education philosophy of Donald Trump and his Secretary of Education. This is the simple analogy in the mind of Betsy DeVos: Public Education is to Taxi as Private Charter is to Uber. So simple. So simpleminded.
And so simply wrong. But let’s take Betsy DeVos’s analogy as our lesson for the day, because there are frightening facts she is accidentally teaching with this insight into how she sees the world.
First, and it needs to be clearly said, no, Madam Secretary, taxis and Uber are not like public schools and private charters. No state constitution has declared that taxis are an essential public good that must be publicly funded so that all children receive a free and appropriate “transportation.” Children are guaranteed a free and appropriate education—an education that does not depend on having a voucher for a religious or private school, winning a charter lottery, or living in a certain neighborhood. There’s a reason for this.
Betsy DeVos makes the essential error common among privateers and profiteers – that education is just another consumer product to buy and sell like shoes or milk. It’s not. It’s the foundation of our democracy and should be the fundamental civil right of every child, funded by our local, state and national governments to ensure that children have the opportunity for a quality public education that prepares them to be successful in their work lives and personal lives, and readies them to be engaged and wise members of our democracy.
But let’s imagine how Uber would change if it existed under the rules of Betsy DeVos’s unregulated and overwhelmingly for-profit charter world. That world unfortunately exists in her home state of Michigan where for decades she’s led the charge for unregulated, unaccountable, unlimited for-profit private charters and private school vouchers. In that world, an Uber Charter would be given tax dollars to pay for sales campaigns with slick promises to convince passengers to sign up for the trip. But passengers wouldn’t have the right to demand that promises made would be promises kept.
Passengers wouldn’t have the right to know if the driver had a license; whether the car had insurance; whether the driver had a history of reckless driving; whether the brakes worked. Privatized charters in Michigan have few standards to meet, little public oversight, the thinnest responsibility to be transparent about their staff’s qualifications, programs, how they spend tax dollars, and just about anything else a parent would need to know to make an informed decision.
Under Betsy DeVos’s Uber Charters, the driver could promise a 2016 Camry but show up in a ’77 Vega, ask for the fare up front, start the journey, then decide suddenly to pull over mid-trip and tell the passenger to get out. And the driver would get to keep the full fare. Michigan charters can go out of business and leave students stranded without notice. Students are able to return to the public schools, but without any funding left to follow them home.
If the Uber Charter in Betsy DeVos’s world abandons passengers, fails to show meaningful progress toward arriving at the destination of a well-rounded education, or leaves a string of unhappy clients, there’s no consequence. The Uber charter is not disqualified from receiving more public funding. Michigan unregulated charters not only can continue receiving tax dollars to maintain a shoddy business, they can even expand.
Finally, in Betsy Devos’s world, Uber Charters could decide which passengers are acceptable. They could decide not to give rides to immigrants or LGBT passengers and they could limit rides to people of preferred backgrounds. That’s the education system that Betsy DeVos fought for in her fight to keep private charter schools free from any responsibility to protect students from discrimination.
In short, we probably know more about an Uber in Michigan than we know about an unregulated charter school in Michigan. We have more safety standards and licensing requirements for an Uber than for a private charter school. We have more customer rights with Uber that guarantee the service promised is the service provided than with an unregulated charter school.
We simply can’t afford to fund two different education systems—one private and one public—on the taxpayer dime. With billions promised by the Trump/DeVos administration in new federal school privatization efforts to make the country over in the likeness of Michigan’s privatized chaos, perhaps now would be a good time to inform the Secretary of Education that Uber is a convenience. Public education for all children, regardless of where they live or where they’re from, is a sacred American value, and one all of us must protect.