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The Changing Nature of Public Schools and Their Influences

Many people would not have predicted that public schools, a seeming mainstay in American life, would be dramatically changing in the early twenty- first century or that public support for them would be in significant decline. In some districts, such as the Recovery School District in New Orleans, traditional public schools no longer exist at all. There and elsewhere, charter schools—a form of public school that is challenging and changing our long- established notions of what it means to be a public school—have replaced traditional public schools. Charter schools come in many forms, with varying missions, pedagogical approaches, oversight, community ties, and connections to corporations. Some charter schools are not even housed in a brick-and-mortar location, but rather can be accessed electronically from anywhere, enabling children to learn in new and different ways that may better meet their needs.

Local control, a long-established element of public schools, is changing across the country as schools face increased federal oversight, often intended to achieve the goals of improved academic performance or greater equity and access in schools. This increased federal oversight has been brought on by accountability policies such as No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and its more recent reauthorization as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA); funding sources such as Title I; nondiscrimination laws such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA); reform policies such as Race to the Top (RTTT); and curriculum movements such as the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Additionally, in some cities, schools have been turned over to mayoral control or designated as recovery school districts, thereby terminating the traditional locally elected school boards. Such measures have changed the relationship between individual citizens, communities, and schools. In many ways, the changes may limit the reach and influence of each citizen, perhaps causing some of us to become disenchanted with or feel disconnected from our local schools. These feelings may mirror other aspects of diminished citizen power arising from voting restrictions or residency challenges, struggling civil society, legal rulings such as Citizens United, and increasing understandings of citizens as consumers.

These changes have occurred alongside the rise of neoliberalism and privatization. Neoliberalism, a worldview closely aligned with free market fundamentalism and neoclassical economics, grew out of the work of Friedrich von Hayek, Milton Friedman, and other economists at the University of Chicago in the 1950s, as well as the work of Ludvig von Mises and other members of the Mont Pelerin Society. Though a diverse group of thinkers with a range of ideas, some of their key beliefs have been lumped together under this term, one that they did not coin or claim for themselves. Generally, neoliberals view the state as inefficient and having too much bureaucratic control. Instead, they argue, the free market and privatization of public resources should be used to achieve social and individual goals in more efficient ways that respond to the demands of consumers. This idea of marketization, reflecting other success via capitalism, has appealed to many of us and to policymakers seeking more efficient schools that can produce the types of graduates we desire with less funding and less government red tape.

Within the market, neoliberals assert that individuals should compete to ensure their own interests and consume goods that fulfill their wishes. In this way, neoliberals believe that the market, rather than traditional social welfare systems, can be used to solve social problems—an approach that is seemingly intuitive or natural. Previous models of the state and citizenship guaranteed rights and benefits to each citizen as part of the social and political contract. Within neoliberalism, the social and political realms are controlled by the economic principles of entrepreneurship and self-interest that guide markets, and therefore the individual is independently responsible for earning his or her own social standing and recognition.5 In turn, the state ensures property rights and free trade within functioning markets, but generally should intervene as little as possible. We see this worldview playing out globally in the policy of the World Trade Organization agreement and its resulting practices as well as locally within many of our own views about the responsibilities of individuals in our communities.

While describing an increasingly widely held view, few adherents would likely refer to themselves using the term “neoliberal.” Rather, they might note their shared belief in the benefits of the free market. And many of us support aspects of this worldview without knowing or claiming this moniker. As the worldview has proliferated in recent decades, hard-and-fast distinctions between neoliberals and non-neoliberals can seldom be drawn. Yet it is worthwhile to consider this ideology and all of its components in more detail, especially relative to education, giving us pause to consider whether we should continue to support or endorse it as it becomes more widespread and more powerful.

The term “neoliberal” is used more often by critics as a pejorative label. I use it here not only as a convenient and broad description of people holding shared economic, social, and political views, but also, to an extent, as a normative term reflecting judgments about good economic, social, and political life, including seeing people primarily as producers and consumers. This is not to say, however, that I use the term as an empty signifier.6 For I do believe the term expresses a shared worldview, although it is admittedly one that is changing over time and held differently among its proponents. And I believe that this worldview can be used as an analytic tool to help us make sense of our current educational climate, even though I have to use it in some rather generalized ways that may suggest greater distinctions between citizens than actually exist.7

I want to acknowledge, also, that neoliberalism should not be quickly written off, for while I find fault with many of its elements in the coming pages and find some of its aspects disconcerting, some views of its founding thinkers are quite useful and I appreciate them, especially outside the context of schooling. Clearly, neoliberal calls for free markets and reduced power of some previously oppressive government regimes have brought greater prosperity to significant segments of the United States and greater choice to many people here and elsewhere. And in the United States, where many of us are bogged down by the demands of work and home, neoliberalism is appealing because it allows us to hone in on our desires and may help us satisfy our pressing individual needs.

Though neoliberalism began as an economic theory, it has branched into issues of culture, values, and everyday life. It provides a rationale for how we think of ourselves and our interactions. It came into dominance following the failures of Keynesianism during the inflation era of the 1970s, and it has continued to change across time. Several decades old, this view has slowly infiltrated education circles and has begun to take a firm hold there in the twenty-first century. Increasingly, students (guided by their parents) are understood to be self-reliant consumers who pursue education to build their own human capital and prepare for a life of economic competition and exchange. Education is seen as something in which one personally invests in order to reap private returns, rather than as a commonwealth of knowledge or collective benefits. And school systems are viewed through the lens of a competitive business model, where they should efficiently produce good products and services that educational consumers desire. In some cases, traditional state-run schools have been more responsive to the needs of their producers (teachers, unions, bureaucratic administration) rather than their consumers (children and families), keeping in place costly and ineffective systems. Because of this, neoliberals have not only raised valid concerns about the dissatisfaction of some consumers, but have also alerted us to ways to organize our schools that may keep them more responsive to the wishes of children and their families.8

Neoliberals aim to use the market to more efficiently fulfill the desires of individuals—rather than relying upon government institutions traditionally thought to serve the common good—thereby placing greater forms of power in the hands of individual citizens as consumers. This has led some parents to shop for alternatives they see as better for their children, such as enrolling them in charter schools, requesting vouchers that funnel public taxpayer dollars into private schools, or paying for private schools themselves, thereby exiting the public system entirely.9 While having the potential to give parents greater power and influence in public schools, the shift to the market, much like the parallel shift to increased federal oversight, has resulted in greater withdrawal of parents from conventional public schools.

Except for the most extreme market fundamentalists, most neoliberals recognize some level of need for the state to deal with things they call merit goods, like schools, that bring both individual and societal benefits, while not being overbearing in determining the purposes of those goods.10 And some proponents, like Milton Friedman, believe that firms in the marketplace should not be determining overarching social goals.11 While some neoliberals might be critical of doing so because they are leery of seemingly collective moral goals, I draw our attention to this opening as a space where citizens might help to shape the nature of our merit goods and the goals they uphold today.

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