Economy

Betsy DeVos' Education Comparison Tells Us a Lot About Her Plans for Public Schools

United States Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is taking criticism for suggesting students should pick their schools in the same way that passengers choose between Uber and Lyft.

DeVos' comments came during an event focused on "school choice" options in the 100 biggest districts in the United States. Through school choice programs, students are allowed to attend public, private, or charter schools outside of their home district, with funding following them to whatever district they choose to attend.

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After criticizing the Obama administration's funding of low-performing public school districts, DeVos pointed out a "different example" of the positive effect choice and competition can have. She asked the audience "How many of you got here today in an Uber, or Lyft, or another ride sharing service? Did you choose that because it was more convenient than hoping a taxi would drive by?"

Continuing the metaphor, she touted the power of school choice to disrupt public schools the same way Uber and Lyft disrupted the taxi industry.

"Just as the traditional taxi system revolted against rides haring, 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.

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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.

Pundits and experts were quick to criticize DeVos' comparison.

"I think it is an extreme oversimplification, and not terribly apt," Maria Ferguson, Executive Director of the Center on Education Policy, told ATTN: in an email. "If the point she was trying to make is that innovation in education could potentially help families and kids, then I agree wholeheartedly. Sadly, I do not think that was her point. She seems to believe that market driven solutions are the only way to improve education, despite the fact that there is precious little evidence to support that belief."

Other experts pointed out that while unfettered choice is fine for low-stakes situations like who to catch a ride with, or where to eat, schooling is far too important to be trusted to market forces and unregulated competition, which has devastated poorly performing public schools in place like Detroit.

She was also criticized for equating expensive education choices to ride-sharing services that are also financially out of reach for low-income families ...

... and for comparing cab or Uber drivers to highly-trained and educated teachers.

However, not everyone agrees that DeVos' point was off base.

Patrick Wolf is a professor in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, and told ATTN: that he believed "Secretary DeVos’ point was that service monopolies, like medallion taxis, tend to be more expensive and less responsive than service providers that face serious competition for their business, like Uber drivers."

"Obviously, the choice of a school is much more involved and impactful than the choice of a driver to the airport," Wolf continued, "but we tend to see much more innovation in areas that face competition than we see in areas that do not." He cited 33 statistical studies of the effect that competition from private school choice has on student test scores, and asserted that "31 of them find that student performance in public schools improves when schools face the pressure of competition."

A recent study focused on DeVos' home state of Michigan suggests otherwise.

According to researchers at Michigan State University, the more than 100,000 students who took advantage of the state's "school of choice" program didn't fare any better on standardized tests than their peers.

While in the short term, DeVos' comment inspired numerous jokes, in the long term, it's hard to say what effect her predilection toward nearly unfettered school choice will have on American students. But it's likely to focus on competition and cost-savings, while minimizing the role of government.

Featured Image:AP/Carolyn Kaster