Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaks at Harvard University on Sept. 28. (Katye Martens Brier for The Washington Post)

 

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos recently spoke at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics and reprised one of her favorite themes: how choosing schools should be like choosing some commercial product or service.

In March, she compared it to choosing among Uber, Lyft, a regular taxi or some other ride-hailing service. This time, the billionaire secretary, a longtime advocate of school choice, moved on to food trucks. Choosing a school is, to DeVos, just like choosing among food trucks at lunch.

But it’s not to Peter Greene. He is a veteran teacher of English in a small town in Pennsylvania who writes the Curmudgucation blog, on which this critique first appeared. He gave me permission to publish this.

Greene writes on his blog about a wide range of education issues but frequently comes back around to DeVos, with whom he has philosophical differences. You can read about those in this earlier post of his:

 

By Peter Greene

Betsy DeVos’s continued search for an analogy by which to illustrate her view of schools regularly reveals how much she doesn’t understand about public education.

Recently at Harvard University, DeVos said this:

Near the Department of Education, there aren’t many restaurants. But you know what? Food trucks started lining the streets to provide options. Some are better than others, and some are even local restaurants that have added food trucks to their businesses to better meet customers’ needs.

Now, if you visit one of those food trucks instead of a restaurant, do you hate restaurants? Or are you trying to put grocery stores out of business?

No. You are simply making the right choice for you based on your individual needs at that time.

Just as in how you eat, education is not a binary choice. Being for equal access and opportunity — being for choice — is not being against anything.

As always, DeVos chooses an analogy that paints education as a commercial transaction in which the customer buys some good or service. That is a flawed concept on its own, but let’s move on to something else. DeVos likes to focus on the customer’s point of view while ignoring all the other factors that will, in fact, affect both the “customer” and the vendor.

The food trucks on the mall in Washington, D.C., are involved in a zero-sum game. There is only so much space on the streets where food trucks deploy, and it is all occupied, which means that if anybody wants to park a new food truck there, an old one will have to be removed. Space on those streets is a finite resource. To give it to one truck is to take it away from another.

DeVos likes to characterize these sorts of balancing acts as emotionally charged moments. She points out that food truck patrons don’t “hate” restaurants. Hatred is beside the point. This, too, is a zero-sum game; if I spend money at a food truck, that is money I cannot spend elsewhere. If everyone eats at food trucks, restaurants will go out of business. DeVos does not have to hate public schools in order to choke off their resources and let them be run into the ground.

Note that DeVos continues to drift further and further away from any interest in accountability for quality. In this analogy of hers, we pick the choice that tastes good, and if it happens to be unhealthy or toxic or laced with fried dog meat, none of that matters. Taste is not a bad guide for matters of food, but with schools, what “tastes good” today is not necessarily what will best serve the student, the family, the community and the nation over the coming decades. “Tastes good this moment” and “provides a solid education for a lifetime” are two entirely different metrics.

Like every other commercial enterprise, the food trucks of the District are not geared to handle all customers. There are many reasons that comparing schools to businesses is a huge fail, but this is one of the hugest: There is no business sector in this country built on the idea of serving every single person in the country. Each food truck operates on the idea that some people will eat there and other people won’t, and as long as enough people eat there, the food truck is good. But if there are people who don’t eat at any of the food trucks or if there are some people who don’t eat at all — well, that is not the food truck operator’s problem.

And as a customer, you can’t get whatever you want; you can only get what the trucks are serving.

The modern charter industry is a business model, and just like any other business model, it is built on serving some customers. Making sure that every student in America gets a good education is not the goal, the purpose or even the concern of the charter industry. But it has to be the concern of a public school system.

Schools are not businesses. Students are not customers. And education is not a side of fries.