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Emphasizing the Individual Rather Than the “We”

Employing critical discourse analysis as a methodology to interpret aspects of power and political ideology operating within the evidence I collected, I sought correlations between the language used to describe and advertise Education Management Organizations (EMOs), the social practices they engage in schools, and the economic ideologies that underlie them.1 While there are many nonprofit charter schools that are not run by EMOs, they tend to vary considerably in their mission, approach, management, and success. Their connection to democracy and public life, in particular, is more varied and nuanced, making it difficult to arrive at generalized assessments regarding their impact on democracy. They deserve detailed study outside of this book. I choose to focus my analysis here on EMOs, which not only offer more extensive networks to analyze, but are also more closely united around shared for-profit approaches and have collectively produced and experienced more similarities across their schools than non-EMO charters. While my criticisms of EMOs should not be directly read onto non-EMO schools, they do raise perspectives on power, governance, and ideology that can be used elsewhere to analyze those schools and their relationship with good democracy.

In my analysis, I found that as EMOs make the case for their schools’ superiority and for parents’ rights to select schools that are “better” for their children, many EMO leaders and their school choice colleagues argue that school success should be measured by the achievement of individuals on particular pieces of tested knowledge. This differs considerably from focusing on knowledge building that brings children into contact with one another, with the world around them, or with social problems, all essential aspects of being a public and working as a democracy.2 Instead, EMO leaders, such as Chris Whittle, contend that schools should be focused on teaching independent learning. In his words, “Independent learning could have the greatest single ‘educational effect.’ The reason: What can be more important than schools graduating students who are capable of independent work? Being literate is one thing. It is quite another to be self-motivated, self-organized, self-disciplined, selfconfident.” This, he says, is “important to success in life.”3 Clearly, these can be admirable qualities even in deeply participatory democracies, and many of us desire to inculcate these qualities in our children. However, it is the narrow focus on independent work and the assessment of such work as a central marker of success that warrants closer attention because it may jeopardize preparation for public work that will keep democracy vibrant.

Also in my analysis, I found that it is “self,” rather than “other” or “community,” that is at the heart of many EMO goals and practices. This differs from the aims, articulated in many traditional public school mission statements, of developing children who work well together and citizens who are integrated in their communities. Emphasizing unique individuals pursuing their own interests and success distinct from the larger community, K12 Inc. touts on its website, “With more than 150 online courses from which to choose ... students can enjoy an individualized high school program tailored to their goals and abilities" Moreover, “K12 will help maximize each student’s personal post-high school success"4 While there is much to celebrate in offering an array of classes that appeal to specific children and provide an educational experience that is responsive to their goals and abilities, it is the emphasis on doing so in order to ensure their own self-interest in personal success that is disconcerting. While this view of individuals and their success is most rampant in EMO materials, it has also become evident within other types of schools who increasingly seek to serve their consumers’ interests in personal success. Because charter schools, voucher schools, and private schools must attract students, their materials may be more prone to employ the language of consumerism and personal payoff than that of traditional public schools, which receive students automatically, believing that such language reflects the desires and motivations of families today.

Functionally public schools—those operating in ways that engage with and support democracy and public life—help us achieve our goals as individuals while also forging a collective sense of “we" in ways that some non-fully public schools cannot insofar as they limit their constituencies along lines of gender, religion, ability, and other categories.5 Sometimes they do so with good intentions, as is the case with charter schools established to serve specific historically underserved populations, or Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) charter schools that seek to construct a shared “Kippster" identity among all of their students. Schools that narrow who counts as “we" and how individuals learn to interact across difference preclude a fully rich and diverse democracy. Feinberg aptly warns that within some private schools, “often lacking is the face-to-face encounter with children from different groups that is essential to a public formation. In many cases, these schools diminish the idea of a public"6 Such face-to-face encounters are also lacking in many of our traditional public schools, especially those with significant racial and economic segregation. However, the mission of such schools is, or at least should be, markedly more pluralistic. They differ considerably in nature from schools where exclusion and exclusivity are overt characteristics.

As is sometimes the case in private schools or school choice programs, if the people involved seek to be segregated from others based on some aspect of student or family identity, they risk res publica. Indeed, University of Illinois researchers uncovered evidence that “suggests that school choice systems may be leading to higher levels of segregation, not simply because parents choose schools where students reflect their own children’s social characteristics, but because schools recognize this tendency and use their autonomy to adopt marketing and enrollment policies that exacerbate such trends"7 In this way, parents who choose these schools and the schools themselves are jeopardizing the development of a broad and inclusive sense of “we"8

A similar narrowing of “we” has also occurred within particular magnet schools of choice. Some of these schools, often located in large urban areas, employ admissions exams and have developed reputations as prestigious and elite. While some magnet schools have been successful at helping to integrate communities, others pose some problems related to issues of segregation and privilege. For example, in New York City, because students who score in the top two percentile on their standardized exams are allowed to be admitted into their first choice of schools, a small handful of schools are now populated by almost the entire population of high-achieving children. Elsewhere in my own city of Cincinnati, the most highly sought-after magnet schools have required standing in line for about two weeks simply to earn an opportunity to enroll, rendering families with certain financial, familial, and job privileges more likely to be admitted. In each of these magnet schools, it is difficult, if not impossible, to form a broad and inclusive sense of “we,” thereby calling into doubt whether they are truly functionally public. In all of these cases, these schools fall short of being truly open to all children and of creating publicness where children work across their differences, as indicated in my list of what public schools should be and do.

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