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Betsy DeVos, Jeff Bezos, and the Case for School Customer Service

I had a weird night the other night. I was watching reruns of testimony from the Betsy DeVos confirmation hearing on CNN (a great way to spend Valentine’s, btw), when my phone buzzed on the coffee table.

The message, from a colleague of mine, said simply, “Read this.”

The link, from Fast Company magazine, featured a giant headshot of Amazon Founder Jeff Bezos and this quote:

“Our customers are loyal to us right up until the second somebody offers them a better service. And I love that. It’s super-motivating for us.”

Ordinarily, this would have been a total non-sequitur. But I’ve still got one earbud plugged into CNN, and I’m listening to DeVos, and I can’t stop thinking about school choice and vouchers and everything else.

Boom, it hits me: Is this the big challenge public schools are facing, right here? Is this the choice conundrum wrapped in a tidy little Bezos bow?

Before you preemptively start throwing fruit at yet another schools-like-a-business analogy, you should know: I agree with you. One hundred percent. What’s the Jamie Vollmer line, something about how schools don’t have the luxury of sending back their blueberries?

I get it. But here’s the thing: I didn’t read that Bezos quote and infer that our schools should be run like a business, like that was somehow the answer. What I took spoke directly to what public schools across the country are contending with right now.

As the school choice movement gains momentum–and it will with DeVos at the helm–public schools that are serious about keeping students and families–and the funding that comes with them, for that matter–have to be equally serious about providing an exceptional educational experience.

I’m not suggesting we run our schools like a business. What I’m suggesting is that we take a hard look at the product of K12 education, and how that experience can be improved in context of the hard realities that public schools face.

There are other ways schools can set themselves apart, and without too much in the way of established inequities or imbalances between the proverbial haves and the have nots.

I’m thinking primarily about those interactions that happen outside of the classroom. How we engage with parents and students when they have questions, or need help. Across the country, parents and community members alike continue to raise red flags about school responsiveness. Rich or poor, urban or rural, these complaints are often the same: Nobody is listening to me.

When you’re fighting tooth and nail for your future, or that of your child, few slights cut deeper than the feeling of being ignored, or somehow passed over. These are the feelings that often lead parents and families to look elsewhere for alternative schools. Often it’s the pledge of more intimacy and better, more personal service that convinces them to hitch their wagon to a different promise.

No, I’m not saying schools should be run like a business. I hear Jamie Vollmer on that. All I’m saying is that service–personal, human service, inside the classroom and out–is something all school districts should commit to do and do well. Because, in the end, the winning product is the one that provides the most value to students and families. And there’s no feeling better when you’re struggling or confused than knowing that your schools have your back.

Wrestling with issues of choice and competition in your schools? Like this article? Hate it? Email Corey Murray at corey.murray@k12insight.com.