Taxi Totalitarianism & Casino Choice

Last summer, for a short beach vacation, my family stayed at a hotel outside Atlantic City, NJ. Though blissfully dog-friendly, the hotel was surrounded by highways, so every morning I got up early, loaded dog in car, and drove to a nearby residential neighborhood with sidewalks for hours of exercise.

Those neighborhoods my dog and I explored that summer were typical of the southern New Jersey I had grown up in: neatly kept middle class houses from the early to mid-20th century; small(ish) yards; sidewalks, trees, municipal parks and fields.

But there was one thing in each of those neighborhoods that was completely atypical of my childhood experience: abandoned houses.

That is, in each neighborhood, no matter the residences’ age, condition, or style, roughly every 4th to 6th house sported either a foreclosure sign or piles of newspapers, disheveled windows, barred doors, and/or an overgrown yard.

After several days, I asked a man working in his yard next door to one of those abandoned properties what had happened.

He had one word: casinos.

By last summer, the once-immense profits from casinos in nearby Atlantic City were mostly gone from the area. In their wake were a few people immensely enriched from those casinos, like our current president—and the abandoned hotels and casinos those few people left behind, which had once employed thousands who had lived in these once middle class houses and neighborhoods.

But what I saw in those neighborhoods wasn’t just the aftermath of unemployment.

It was the public bearing of a private burden.

That is, the industry that made a few people immensely wealthy was sustained not by the millions of visitors who pulled the levers of slot machines–the so-called gamblers–but by the people who worked at those casinos, who bet their livelihoods on that industry and then lost everything when private interests decided to pull out–without anyone in the public having a say.

Back home in DC, when I and my dog walk around what once were middle class neighborhoods here, we almost always see those yellow signs posted, signaling abandoned buildings and houses.

And we see former DCPS schools.

Indeed, our deputy mayor for education, Jennifer Niles, just released a report that shows that since 1997, 41% of DCPS schools have been closed. Most are now occupied by charter schools, which started here in 1996.

Niles has recently proposed not only a charter school walkability preference, which would garner more students for DC charter schools, but also a mobility proposal, which would ensure that highly mobile students are sprinkled to schools around the city, increasing charter school enrollments. And just last week, Niles directed the cross sector task force to start discussion of school facilities–which are highly coveted by DC charter operators.

Hmm: Wonder how that will turn out?

After all, no one who had the authority to make the decisions to close 41% of DCPS schools asked anyone in any of those neighborhoods whether they wanted their DCPS schools closed. Those decisions were made, regardless—a win for the house, if you will.

Moreover, no one with that authority, who (occasionally) asked those neighborhoods if they wanted a charter school there, accepted the word “no” for a final answer. And no one with that authority asked the public whether it wanted a charter walkability preference or mobility preference before both were proffered—and may yet be made into DC policy.

And no one charged right now with approving new charter schools has any responsibility in ensuring that citizens want those new schools in their midst–or even need or demand them anywhere. Indeed, there is no analysis for any of that—except that of the aspiring charter operators themselves.

Talk about wins for the house!

As with the Atlantic City casinos, the desire for, and happy creation of, new schools, alongside the closing of existing ones, is often on the part of someone who is not actually bearing the cost. Those who DO bear that cost may want and need better for their existing schools–or even want new schools. But they have utterly no say in any of this—despite paying every dime of it.

And now we have 20 years of data that shows clearly that this state of affairs results in DCPS closures and school deserts, where by right schools are, literally, inaccessible–and no city leader appears to be doing anything about it.

Atlantic City isn’t just in New Jersey, it seems.

Our new federal education secretary, Betsy DeVos, is all over this. For her, as for many education decision makers here in DC, school choice is as pleasant and clinical an experience as picking out blueberries or toilet paper at the supermarket. For them, public schools are commodities, not civic institutions vital to neighborhoods and communities. And who doesn’t want “high-quality” casinos, toilet paper–or schools?

Indeed, in her speech last week at the Brookings Institution, DeVos likened citizens being upset with charter schools and school choice to taxicab operators being upset with rideshare companies honing in on their business.

If only!

Maybe someone should tell the Brookings Institution (which ranks school choice, as if it’s a matter of great weekly discounts on beer and coffee beans) that school choice in DC isn’t exactly a shining example of democracy or discounts. After all, creating new schools as well as closing existing ones costs money—and where does that money come from?

Setting aside such dodgy accounting, we seem to have lost sight of just how weird and removed from the public sphere school choice really is.

For instance, we do not do this with our courts. We don’t have “court choice,” wherein we choose what court we may be compelled to show up in, based on whether it is “high-performing” or “effective.” (Although I’d like to try that with jury service—maybe choose which court has the best coffee and/or seats?) And we don’t have private courts set up using public money, to afford “court choice” because we don’t like the court that is our municipal one and someone, somewhere, promises to do better somehow.

We also don’t do this with our public parks. At least, I have never once chosen a park on the basis of whether it is “high-performing” or “effective.” Ditto for police or fire services or even libraries.

Similarly, we don’t have ambulance and trauma center choice. Unlike what many hospital ads say, when you are biking and hit by a car through no fault of your own and fly through the car’s windshield headfirst and then ricochet off and hit the pavement (also headfirst), you don’t sit up and say, “Gees, I am not sure I want to have THAT ambulance that just pulled up—or go to THAT trauma center!”

(BTW, that exact accident happened to my son–hit by a rideshare driver. Sadly, my son was in no condition to exercise “choice”—or to call me and ask if I would do so on his behalf. And I think the rideshare passenger shocked by witnessing that entire bloody episode might have a few words about how that rideshare experience was not exactly like picking out blueberries at Safeway.)

But I digress:

According to Betsy DeVos and local school choice proponents (DFER, charter school advocates, many DC education leaders), public schools are akin to assembly-line widgets, to be opened and closed and chosen according to some standard of accountability that, at least now in DC’s case, doesn’t even take into account the real differences between schools (different rules for expulsions and suspensions, different levels of trauma, different teacher training and churn, different levels of resources, etc.), but pretends everything is even steven, “apples to apples,” like so many Grade A eggs and organic blueberries on display at the local Giant.

It’s a nice gamble, indeed–which is fine and well for an industry that promotes a fantasy of riches for everyone, even when only the house ever gets wealthy.

But it’s not democracy. Or our public schools.

And the people really paying for it, at least in DC, are our kids.

So maybe our DC education leaders can quickly figure out how not to follow Secretary DeVos’s lead. (You know, that whole democracy thing?)

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