Jeff Bezos And The Problem With The Child As Customer

Owen is a journalist and graduate student in economics at the New School. Bylines include Harpers, TPM, The Baffler, the Nation and Qz.

You can check out more from Owen on his site here and follow along on Twitter @odavis_

Much of what Jeff Bezos does has been innovative; otherwise he wouldn’t be the richest person on earth. But in other respects he’s been a fairly conventional businessman. In his recent announcement that he’d be deploying around 1.2 percent of his current net worth to help homeless families and children, Bezos joined a long tradition of tycoons who’ve set their philanthropic sights on education. Names like Rockefeller, Gates and Walton come to mind. It makes sense that Bezos is the next one.

What Bezos proposes is mostly laudable. He wants to fund groups that address homelessness, and also run “a network of high-quality, full-scholarship, Montessori-inspired preschools in underserved communities.” But what rankled some observers was this part:

“We’ll use the same set of principles that has driven Amazon. Most important among those will be genuine, intense customer obsession. The child will be the customer.”

It’s no surprise that business magnates who turn to education use the language of business. Markets made them rich; markets are what they know. It would be a disservice on their part to withhold this expertise from those they earnestly want to serve. And although there’s an obvious creepiness quotient in Bezos musing about children as customers, again, there’s little new here. The school choice movement, the dominant force in U.S. public education since the 1990s, boils down to this notion.

Few, however, put it as crisply as Bezos does, nor do they link such a well-known business model (Amazon) as closely with their conception of education. So this is a good opportunity to explore the central problem of the notion of children-as-customers: community.

When a child or family picks a school, they’re not just choosing the right adults and methods as one would any other service; they’re choosing other kids. That’s where problems arise.

First, it’s worth noting that obviously the “child” is not the customer. We’re talking pre-school here. Toddlers don’t weigh costs and relative utilities, or deliberate over the merits of an open-format Montessori approach versus a more structured environment. Parents do that.

What does a parent-customer want in a school? Nice facility, good teachers, competent administration, state-of-the-art instructional techniques—that’s the obvious stuff. But there’s one other factor families consider that rarely gets mentioned: other students.

Though the community element is widely overlooked in market conceptions of education, it’s plain as day if you spend any time speaking to parents actually making these decisions. As an 8th-grade public school teacher in Bridgeport, Connecticut, I regularly met with parents to discuss their children’s high school options, a mix of vocational, magnet and public schools. Perhaps the top concern parents expressed was whether a school had “good kids.” This issue often transcended quality of teachers or depth of instruction.

Nor is this an irrational prejudice. Peer effect are real. One recent study found that an overabundance of low-ability students in a school “negatively and significantly affects the cognitive performance of other schoolmates.” Unsurprisingly, certain schools make it a priority to dump these students.

Given the choice, would the average parent send their “customer” to a school with more children who have disabilities, or fewer? With more kids in poverty, or fewer? With more students who have emotional trauma, or fewer? Would the average white family send their child to a school with more black kids, or fewer? More children of immigrants, or fewer?

It’d be ideal to live in a world where the answer to the questions above were more, more, more. But in this world, we can’t be so sure. The furor over school rezonings in gentrified Brooklyn or Ferguson, Missouri gives a sense of the lengths privileged parents will go to make sure the answers above are less, less and less. School choice has always and ever involved white families choosing whiter schools.

That said, the actual dynamics in school choice systems tend to be quite complicated. In New York, school choice sits aside successful legacy schools that draw mainly from surrounding neighborhoods or admit only high-scorers. Outcomes then involve an interplay of housing segregation, class stratification and social capital. Even so, it’s worth noting that school choice in New York City has in fact coincided with increased school segregation.

Of course, this is all a few steps removed from Bezos’s plan: a network of preschools and not an entire system. But the tension between customer and community remains. When you patronize Amazon, other people don’t enter into the equation. A central aspect of the Amazon experience is liberation from the jostling crowd. It’s just you and the product. While there’s some community to Amazon (reviews are helpful when not gamed), in the main it’s a solitary experience. School is not.

My prediction: Bezos, like Bill Gates before him (and a previous Bill Gates before him), will find educational entrepreneurialism to be a learning experience.

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