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School Choice, Bureaucracy, and American Airlines

Hi all, it's good to be back. There's plenty to say, both with the "let's-see-how-quickly-and-often-we-can-shoot-ourselves-in-both-feet" Trump administration and some of the conversations I'm having as I talk about Letters to a Young Education Reformer and what I've learned about school reform.

But I don't have the appetite for all that today. That's because I'm sitting here at the B-hub McDonald's in the Dallas-Ft. Worth airport, frustrated and annoyed because my American Airlines flight to Chicago was so delayed this morning that I was going to miss my connection to Oklahoma City, which meant I'd miss the talk I was slated to give at the University of Oklahoma. This bothered American Airlines not at all. My assistant Paige did finally convince a call center drone to stop stonewalling her—which led to the remarkable discovery that routing me through Dallas could get me to Oklahoma City in time. Who'd of thunk?

Of course, at the last minute, my new flight to Dallas wound up being delayed by close to an hour. This meant my layover in DFW shrunk to about 20-25 minutes. So I bolted off the plane, asking the "helpful" lady guiding us to our transfer gates to please just let the gate know I was coming (she said she would). I didn't make it. Well, by dashing up and down escalators and such, I actually made it there just in time, barely 10 minutes before departure—but the agent had already closed the door and was nowhere to be found. The idle American agent at the gate twenty feet over didn't much care, even though an impartial third party might've thought I merited at least a modicum of consideration—given that I'd spent a big chunk of my day trying to juggle air reservations and rental car plans to accommodate American's struggles. In a wry touch, after Paige was repeatedly told that there was no room on the later flight to Oklahoma City, the DFW American agent casually booked me on that flight. Oh, and I asked if the landing gate had ever called over. They hadn't. So I'm sitting here at McDonald's with my fries, food, and sweet tea.

Now, you're thinking, "Whatever. Why do I care?" After all, you've all been through just this, with airlines, banks, car insurers, the IRS, and, of course, school systems. It's a fair question. But here's the thing: For me, my grim mood speaks very directly to the strange back-and-forth that's unfolding around the "evils" of privatization, the wonders of school choice, and how school reform helps real families.

I'm annoyed today less because my flights were goofed up (which happens), and more because no one who works for the airline seems especially interested in doing anything about it. I would feel infinitely more chipper if I felt like someone really wanted to help ensure that the problem got solved. Instead, I'm staring at the face of a big, bureaucratic morass, a face that displays a remarkable lack of passion for doing the job well.

This happens time and again when it comes to big bureaucracies. Nobody seems all that concerned about helping out, preferring instead to spout lots of stuff about policy and procedure. We can never get hold of anyone who really seems to be in charge, and it can feel like the whole process is devoid of accountability or genuine human concern.

This frustration is at the heart of the school choice debate. School choice advocates experience this feeling of helplessness and think something has to change. They want an option beyond appealing to the tuned-out gate agent. They want to be able to clearly and cleanly signal disapproval by leaving one school or system for another. The more thoughtful advocates remind us that the real promise of markets is not in providing miracle solutions, but in allowing better providers to emerge and worse ones to get gradually squeezed out. Those who embrace charter schooling and private school choice see them as ways to break up big, impersonal systems in favor of smaller, more human-sized ones.

Choice critics think that supporters are misdiagnosing the problem. They read my American experience and observe that American is a for-profit company operating in a marketplace, and that airline passengers already have choice. Clearly, they argue, there's no magic in markets. They argue that choice and markets don't speak to the core issues of professional acumen, while a profit-seeking focus on the bottom line helps drain the humanity and responsiveness from an organization. They note that I still had to wind up on American, that I'll probably fly American next week (due to limited options), and that my vaunted choice didn't seem to yield much responsiveness.

What we all want, I think, in an airline—and a hundred times more in a school—is that professionals exhibit a passion for doing their job well. For figuring out smart ways to solve problems. For execution. We all know what that looks like on a small scale; we've all seen small businesses and schools where that is the rule. The problem is that this kind of quality is incredibly hard to do at scale, and so we search for scalable solutions. That's natural and healthy, and I think choice has a role to play there. But I think we'd all be vastly better off if we worked harder to recognize that both sides have valid points to make and spent less time celebrating or denouncing "CHOICE" in lurid, purple prose.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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