Real Accountability Is Choice, Not Regulation


(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

Imagine that a lobbyist from the taxi industry argued that rideshare companies like Uber and Lyft are “unaccountable” because they aren’t subject to the same regulations as the taxi industry.

The right response, of course, would be to laugh at the absurdity. Clearly Uber and Lyft drivers are much more accountable than taxi drivers because they are directly accountable to the consumer. Passengers rate their drivers based on the quality of their experience, so drivers tend to work hard to ensure that passengers have a good experience. When was the last time you got into a taxi and were offered candy or your choice of music?

Now imagine that someone responded to the taxi lobbyist with something like the following:

That may have been the case years ago, when Uber first burst onto the scene. Rideshare companies were not generally subject to price controls — not even to prohibit “surge pricing” —and even if they were, there were no requirements to purchase a taxi medallion or obtain a commercial license. And, to be fair, that’s still the case for some rideshare companies, where commercial insurance requirements remain light to nonexistent.

But what some rideshare-doubters might not know is that some of the newest and biggest rideshare markets—like those in New York and Maryland—now have significant accountability provisions that are arguably even stronger than those found in many taxi laws. That’s no accident. Pro-rideshare lawmakers adopted these taxi-like requirements because some of us accountability hawks and advocacy groups pushed for them.

In Austin, Texas, participating rideshare companies must run fingerprint background checks on all their drivers. In New York City, drivers must obtain a Taxi and Limousine Commission permit and license plate that’s used to show that the driver meets the city’s standards. Mayor Bill De Blasio has also pushed for imposing a medallion-like system that would keep the growth in the number of rideshare drivers down to manageable levels.

So if you oppose Uber and Lyft because of lack of accountability, it may be time to change your position.

Sadly, that’s almost exactly what Fordham’s Mike Petrilli wrote this week in attempting to defend choice programs from the spurious charge that they are “unaccountable.” The above paragraphs are merely a revised version of what he actually wrote (as Matt highlighted earlier this week). Rather than explain that the very act of choosing is, itself, a strong form of accountability, Mike instead lists all the ways in which some voucher programs subject schools to top-down government regulations–“just like their public school counterparts.”

This fundamentally misunderstands accountability. As I explained at the Heritage Foundation earlier this week, true accountability is when service providers are directly answerable to the people most affected by their performance. When that isn’t possible, as when a utility company has a monopoly, top-down regulations may be necessary instead. But we shouldn’t confuse the inferior alternative accountability regime for the ideal form of accountability just because that’s what we’re used to. As Thomas Sowell has written, “It is hard to imagine a more stupid or more dangerous way of making decisions than by putting those decisions in the hands of people who pay no price for being wrong.”

Sadly, we’ve become so accustomed to the “accountability” regime imposed on the monopoly district school system that many people have not only come to confuse it for true accountability, but they no longer recognize true accountability when they see it.

UPDATE: For my comments at Heritage this week, plus even wiser commentary from Jay Greene and Yuval Levin, see here:


12 Responses to Real Accountability Is Choice, Not Regulation

  1. Greg Forster says:


    Someone should write a blog series about this.

  2. Jason Bedrick says:

    To be clear, I’m not implying that Petrilli thinks charters or private schools should be subject to *all the exact same regulations* as district schools. He doesn’t. (The “just like their public school counterparts” quote referred to A-F grading schemes, but he opposes other regulations, like open admissions requirements.) The point is that when he thinks about accountability, his first instinct is to describe how those schools are subject to government regulations rather than answerable to parents.

    • Mike G says:

      Jason, love the Uber analogy. For Uber, middle class customers, so they get to defeat taxi monopoly. For charters – to Jay’s point about Massachusetts – poorer customers in many places, so they lose to the monopoly.

      Indulge me here. My sense was more Petrilli thinking this way: “When he is asked about accountability *by people who strongly believe that means government regulation* then his first instinct is to describe how those schools are subject to government regulations”?

      Would it be fair to say your contrasting view as – and forgive me if I’m off here, just trying to understand the distinction: “One should lead with describing parent choice as accountability — even if most of your audience historically rejected that — because only by saying it over and over might you persuade them….Petrilli may be correctly pegging his audience, and therefore building some additional support for certain types of regulated school choice in the short term, but it’s not worth the trade-off, and it reduces our chances of a real market in the long run.”

      • Jason Bedrick says:

        Thanks, Mike!

        It’s not just a matter of what you emphasize first. It’s what we think about how accountability works. Is Uber so successful because of the top-down regulations or direct accountability to consumers? Taxis were subject to all sorts of regulations, including re: cleanliness, but which system tends to have cleaner cars? Nothing prevented taxis from offering candies or the passenger’s choice of radio station, but where are these behaviors more frequent, and why? The answer should be obvious. Consumer ratings trumped government regulations.

  3. How can parents have a choice of a non-Common Cored school?

  4. Don Crawford, Ph.D. says:

    Yes to Sandra Stotsky (as usual!). As Jay has said publicly, parents want things other than higher scores on the narrow state tests. Lots of parents would like safer schools, or more disciplined schools, or schools that teach the greatness of America, or schools that teach academics rigorously, or schools that eschew progressive teaching methods for more direct instruction.

    I believe it is likely that some schools in high poverty areas might serve students better by focusing on occupational skills and training for employment rather than following Common Core defined “college and career ready” expectations.

    And I know that high schools which prepared and placed all students in career-type employment upon graduation would have long waiting lists and NO drop-outs!

    “One size fits none” is a great rallying cry!

  5. I’m not sure my question was answered. How can parents have a choice of curriculum when CC follows vouchered kids into the school that accepts the voucher and is also imposed on public charters? The situation is growing worse. Teacher prep programs now train teacher to teach to CC standards, not the subject/discipline itself.

  6. […] an excellent article published on Jay Greene’s blog, Jason Bedrick, who was just named the national policy […]

  7. […] Bedrick, Director of Policy at EdChoice, wrote a blog post on the subject in which he states, “Real Accountability Is Choice, Not Regulation.” Bedrick is, of course, correct and the title of his piece points to the heart of the Big […]

  8. […] Bedrick, Director of Policy at EdChoice, wrote a blog post on the subject in which he states, “Real Accountability Is Choice, Not Regulation.” Bedrick is, of course, correct and the title of his piece points to the heart of the Big […]

  9. […] parents and teachers directly accountable to each other. That directly improves education and accountability for it, not faux, government-driven “accountability” regulations that largely enrich and […]

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