I’m a fan of Uber. I stump for the service to just about anyone. And why not? The experience is near seamless—you might call it magical. I get picked up when I want, no questions. They come to get me wherever I want, and they take me wherever I want to go. No driver asks me where I live, how much money I make, or where I am going before grabbing me. And maybe most importantly, if I don’t like something Uber does—or don’t want to pay during surge times—I don’t have to.
It’s as easy to use Uber as it is not to. This is a priceless taste of transportation freedom formerly reserved for the oligarchs. As a non-driver, it’s almost enough to make me even like cars.
I’m also a fan of charter schools for many of the same reasons I like Uber.
The chartering power, like the awesome functionality folks now command from their cell phones, enables the creation of new schools that are nimble, creative, and customized to the needs of students. And with a mission that isn’t bound by location and that doesn’t bow to the notion that some kids who live in the wrong borough or who have the wrong parents just won’t get a great education, they bring the same sort of “freedom” to the people that Uber does. In New York in particular, Uber and charter schools are opposite sides of the same disruptive, empowering coin.
If you like both of these things then Mayor Bill de Blasio’s recent attacks on Uber at the behest of the Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) and its well-heeled, medallion-wielding financiers might look stunningly similar to his volleys against the city’s charter school sector.
The rhetoric is so similar that — short on time and desperate to support another protectionist monopoly — it’s like the mayor and his staff reused the same playbook. And the players all line up similarly as well. De Blasio and Governor Cuomo. The TLC and Uber. And, of course, the city’s charter sector and the United Federation of Teachers (UFT). Just compare the tactics.
Step 1: Make it about class
In the run-up to the city’s showdown with Uber, Gene Friedman, the face of the TLC, observed that more than 1,000 New York City cab medallions were rapidly losing their value — some 20 percent since 2011 — due to alternatives like Uber. “We’re here to serve the public,” Friedman said. “We’re not here to serve the upper-middle-class Jewish businessman from the Upper East Side that’s willing to pay $200 to get anywhere.”
Friedman’s press shop clearly could have worked hand-in-hand with that of the UFT, which is eager to arrest the growth of the city’s charter sector because they lose money every time a student leaves. The UFT asserts that charters somehow serve kids from rich and influential families to the exclusion of others despite data to the contrary. As the New York City Charter Center reports, 94% of the city’s charter students were African American and Latino in 2013, and 80% of them were economically disadvantaged.
Just like Uber is the black car for the common man, charters represent great schools for every kid.
Step 2: Make it all about money
De Blasio fashions himself a champion of the little guy in a fight against monied interests. He painted his challenge to Uber in a July 18 op-ed in The Daily News just this way when he offered that, “No company’s multi-billion-dollar political war chest gives it a blank check to skirt vital protections and oversight for New Yorkers.”
If you insert “hedge-fund billionaires” anywhere you see fit in this sentence it will magically become about charter schools and corporate interests taking over public education in the city.
It’s worth remembering, of course, that the TLC, and the UFT, are among the mayor’s largest donors and have showered him – and his allies – with hundreds of thousands of dollars in political contributions. If you’re OK with the TLC controlling how you get from Point A to Point B, and the UFT calling the shots for your kids’ education, more power to you. I don’t think, however, the people of New York will agree with you.
Step 3: Deny it’s about consumer choice
Perhaps the strongest similarity between the disruptive power of Uber and that of charter schools is the sheer growth of, and demand for, both.
Strangely, the mayor’s response to New Yorkers wanting more access to Uber was to cap how many drivers Uber could have on the street. Overlooking the fact that Uber is employing thousands in an economy that remains anemic, why should he get to draw a line in the sand and decide “How much is enough” when the market so clearly tells him there are more rides to be given to New Yorkers – and subsequently more jobs to be created?
Faced with the same issue in regards to charter schools, the mayor did much the same thing, first looking to establish a moratorium on charter co-locations in the city (capping their growth by killing off their space), and then telling folks at a public forum, and later elected officials in Albany, that “We don’t need new charters.”
This spring, Achievement First, a high-performing charter network in Brooklyn, had more than 20,000 applicants for just 1,000 available seats. Success Academy, run by Eva Moskowitz (who de Blasio famously blasted on the campaign trail, saying she had “to stop being tolerated, enabled, supported.”) saw more than 19,000 applications for 2,688 slots in its network.
The mayor and his schools chancellor may not think we need any new charters, but New Yorkers seem to disagree.
When the mayor sees what he thinks is too much of a good thing, he’s the first person in line to put a cap on progress. This is nonsensical at best and misguided at worst. And in the end, we are left with two questions: Does he dislike these things simply because he doesn’t control them…even though the people do like them? And does this kind of deep illogical opposition contradict his populist rhetoric?
Step 4: Ignore the results
Uber is the “no excuses” model for transportation. If it’s raining outside, I don’t have to stand on a corner for an hour and hope I find a cab. I can get picked up whether I’m in Bedford-Stuyvesant or on the West Side. The only thing that matters is the most important one: I need a ride.
And just like I need a ride, thousands of kids in the city who previously were being denied an adequate education are now getting one in the city’s charter schools. Schools that educate them regardless of their circumstances, or what neighborhood they live in. Schools that make their learning a priority regardless of who their parents are or how much money they make. And schools that, like Uber, “pick you up” whether you’re in the outer boroughs or in the most expensive part of Manhattan.
Unlike Uber, you don’t need a cell phone to get a great education in New York City. You do, however need a governor who has your back.
Step 5: Make the governor a hero
The mayor and Governor Andrew Cuomo’s erratic political relationship is widely chronicled, but with Uber, as with charters—when innovation, disruption, and choice were in the mayor’s crosshairs—the governor stepped in and played the role of white knight.
“Uber is one of these great inventions,” Cuomo told public radio’s “The Capitol Pressroom” recently. “It is taking off like fire through dry grass and it’s offering a great service for people and it’s giving people jobs. I don’t think government should be in the business of trying to restrict job growth.”
Shortly after signaling his support, a deal between Uber and the city was reached that didn’t include a cap, though who negotiated the deal — the mayor or Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito — remains to be seen.
Similarly, in 2014, de Blasio tried to evict 194 high-performing kids of color from a Success Academy in central Harlem, ostensibly at the behest of the UFT whose head, Michael Mulgrew, called charter co-locations “troublesome.”
Cuomo, meanwhile, was busy engineering a deal that not only assured charters would have space in the city, but would require the mayor to pick up the tab for their rent in private space if he didn’t co-locate them.
And this year, against de Blasio’s wishes, the governor wrangled a tweak to the state’s charter school cap that will allow another 50 charter schools to be created in New York City. In this case, as with Uber, Cuomo is right — there will be enough of both of them when no one calls for a car, and the wait lists are empty.
The interim results on both of these fights for innovation and choice are positive, with Uber and the city’s charter sector both allowed to continue their growth. However, they both face uncertain futures under a mayor who seems driven by ideology over quality – and who does not appear to be listening to the demands or desires of his constituents.
This article first appeared in The74.