The Free Individual Acting through the Market
More than just focusing on individual students and their personal success, EMO charter school leaders and other advocates of school choice emphasize the ability of individuals to use the market to exercise their personal liberty in unrestrained ways. “Choice” and the “freedom to choose” are some of the most frequently used words and phrases in school choice and EMO publications. K12 Inc. tops its website by saying that its “schools provide powerful choices for parents" The site goes on to bring together choice and the interests of individuals when it answers the question “What is K12?” by saying, “We give parents a choice: Individualized learning customized to each child’s needs ... to help students find their own path" On the face of it, freedom and choice are welcome in a democracy, but it is worthwhile to more closely consider the use of these in a growing climate of neoliberalism shaping new forms of schooling.
Freedom, as celebrated by many neoliberals, is mostly aligned with Friedrich Hayek’s definition in The Constitution of Liberty9 as freedom in a negative sense—the absence of coercion. Hayek adds that freedom should be a value celebrated unto itself, without taking into consideration whether the results of an individual’s pursuit of freedom will be harmful or beneficial to others. The freedom invoked is sought independently of the public good, including the political and social purposes that compose it. Indeed, the public sector is seen as necessarily restrictive of private liberty, and the marketplace is envisioned as a freer space of connected individuals. In this way, Benjamin Barber explains, “civil associations feel (at best) rather like consumer cooperatives or rights alliances. They permit individuals to protect themselves more efficiently and serve themselves more securely but have little to do with participation, cooperation, or sociability per se, let alone solidarity or community and the pursuit of a commonweal such a community makes possible"10
Invoking a spirit of freedom in the choice to remove one’s child from a traditional public school, a decision lauded in some school choice materials, may show insufficient concern for the well-being of the others left behind in that school, or for the types of communal decision making that privilege the well-being of all people. Foregrounding the freedom of individuals sidesteps the communal significance of the welfare state and the notion of citizenship as concern for others and the public good. Even though a school of choice may encourage its students to participate in community service activities, such as White Hat Management engaging its students in the Feed the Children program, a contradictory message is sent when they urge families to leave traditional public schools in those communities.11
Nearly all EMOs use advertising materials that champion the individual liberty of parents to choose schools that serve the best interests of their children as individuals, all the while heralding the choice to break away from government-run schools that are seen as restrictive and bureaucratic. In their landmark book on school choice, a necessary precursor to the development of EMO networks and vouchers, John Chubb and Terry Moe conclude, “The most important prerequisite for the emergence of effective school characteristics is school autonomy, especially from external bureaucratic influence"12 Later they add, “Our guiding principle in the design of a choice system is this: public authority must be put to use in creating a system that is almost entirely beyond the reach of public authority ... As long as authority remains ‘available’ at higher levels within state government, it will eventually be used to control the schools. As far as possible, all higher-level authority must be eliminated"13 Charter schools, especially EMOs that seek to employ their own corporate practices, celebrate reduced government oversight (which, like Chubb and Moe, they are quick to dub “bureaucratic") and argue that they will be more effective because of it.14
One way in which some school choice leaders strive to deemphasize government intervention and pursue liberty is through the use of the free market. Competition and exchange in the marketplace are believed to lead to better schools, and the types of schools that excel in the marketplace are thought to be those most responsive to consumers’ wishes (in this case, largely parents’ desires). Indeed, many EMO website headlines tout high percentages of parent satisfaction, such as National Heritage Academies’ claim that “92% of parents would recommend their NHA school to others" or website tabs such as “testimonials of customer success"15 And Ki2.Inc proclaims, “Profitability yields invention, responsiveness, and responsibility"16
Numbers are further used to persuade consumers within the market. For example, one EMO homepage touts: “100% of graduates of White Hat- managed schools pass required State High School graduation tests"17 This claim, seemingly a great marker of success, is a rather misleading use of test performance to appeal to consumers. For, in order to graduate, one must pass state graduation tests. In other words, it would be impossible to have anything less than a 100% success rate among graduates, yet few consumers would detect this convoluted use of statistics or how it shapes their impression of the schools as they shop the market.
While there seems to be a trend in the commentaries of EMO managers toward an unregulated free market when it comes to education, famous school choice proponent Milton Friedman argues that the nature of education distinguishes it from many of the products and services that the market is better equipped to manage. Because of this, Friedman argues that education should not be purely market driven; rather, the government has some responsibility for ensuring that education is provided, including placing some regulations on the content of that education.18 We’ve begun to see how deregulation and lack of oversight in some charter schools may jeopardize the learning and well-being of children. Wayne Au shares the example of First Place Scholars in Washington state, where, without ongoing oversight typical in traditional public schools, students were put at risk. In this example, he points out,
The mistakes and problems are figured out after the fact, after the students in special education don’t receive any special education services for six months of the year, after months of English language learners not getting the services they require and deserve, after $200,000 is incorrectly allocated to them, after we find out that proper criminal background checks have not been completed, after a school spends most of the year on the brink of financial collapse and regularly cuts services for kids"19
Unfortunately, this is not a rare example.
One of the most promising elements of the free market is the way that it can spur innovation. Some school choice advocates celebrate the free market for the ways in which it can introduce competition and ultimately new approaches to schooling. White Hat Management CEO David Brennan proclaims,
The power of choice in the hands of the consumer is the most awesome power to guarantee quality, effective cost, effective delivery, and consumer responsiveness. It’s incredible because—and every one of our people in our organization knows—if these participants aren’t getting what they need, we won’t be here... . The demands to satisfy the needs of the users drive quality ... It’s the example of our society as a whole, that the quality products don’t come from government-dictated regulation. They come from competition.20
Similarly, Whittle claims, “Competition raises all boats. When we’re asked to manage a school, we know we have to do it well. If we don’t do it appreciably better than the school down the street, why are we there? This argues for the concept of a multiple-provider model, and children are the winners of that competition"21 Yet Whittle also recognizes that there needs to be a more overt focus on ensuring quality of choice among schools available within the market. Supporters of the model of education reform via charter schools tend to use testing to provide seemingly objective comparisons between schools (thereby offering determinations of quality) so that a market can rise among them. Yet even when a competitive market has been formed, even if it is not one that is as thoroughgoing as some corporate leaders would like, researchers and policymakers have found that some underperforming charter schools fail to close, as would have been predicted under market logic, due to lack of demand. Rather, many parents stayed put in these schools, thereby demonstrating that competition and markets are not failsafes for ensuring good schooling.22
In those cases and others, it is important to recognize that while the general market is described as though it were objective and neutral, the market is actually a constructed category that is promoted and reified. And, the market and its effects are not benign. In education, promotion of the market has taken the form of continuous data measurement and comparison through testing, which positions some schools as winners and some as losers. But this is not an objective state of affairs; education leaders actively shape tests, their frequency and content, and the portrayal of their results in ways that suggest connotative understandings and directions for the market. Made to seem apolitical and neutral, education markets are actually carefully crafted.23 In some cases, numbers and markets are unethically and overtly tampered with, such as the 2015 Ohio scandal where a state leader decided to omit failing charter school data from their state accounting measures in order to boost the overall appearance of success among charters, likely steering some misinformed parents their way.24
Beyond the education marketplace, the state increasingly propagates the supposed free market. Brown notes,
This is the central paradox, perhaps even the central ruse, of neoliberal governance: the neoliberal revolution takes place in the name of freedom—free markets, free countries, free men—but tears up freedom’s grounding in sovereignty for states and subjects alike. States are subordinated to the market, govern for the market, and gain or lose legitimacy according to the market’s vicissitudes; states also are caught in the parting ways of capital’s drive for accumulation and the imperative of national economic growth. Subjects, liberated for the pursuit of their own enhancement by the social, the political, the common, or the collective, are inserted into the norms and imperatives of market conduct.25
Brown warns elsewhere that our state is now in service to the market, and yet citizens don’t cry out about it because they have lost their political capabilities and, I would add, their sensitivity to inappropriate relationships between the state and the market in the first place.26 This situation will likely continue to morph in problematic ways as globalization further shifts nation-based and local conversations largely into market choices that are focused merely on economic ends, and lack connection with or even care for local public goods or common living as political and civic matters tied to relatively small communities.
In a final example, we see that the Margaret Thatcher-inspired neoliberal logic of “there is no alternative” to the market is serving to close down political spaces of deliberation, or failing to recognize the complexity of the current educational crisis because it presumes a clear and straightforward economic solution of privatization and free market ideology. This logic functions undemocratically to determine appropriate trajectories and goals in advance, without considering the input or circumstances of actual citizens. In other words, markets allow for choice in only a limited sense (within the paradigm of free market decision making), and curtail the public’s capacity to make meta-choices, like whether the market is the best way to proceed. Markets are not an acceptable replacement for public deliberation about our aims and goods.
Succumbing to the appeal of seeming market power and not realizing that their choices have been limited, parents may unwittingly relinquish true political deliberation and decision-making opportunities when they employ vouchers in particular. For, as Barber wisely notes, “Vouchers do not stimulate political judgment, they bypass it, and thus contribute to its atrophy.”27 Vouchers, under the guise of giving more decision-making power to parents, strip publics of their ability to democratically debate alternatives and construct improved solutions in schools. And, while vouchers motivate parents to take action regarding their child’s education, they do so most often out of only their private interests, with little concern for public goods or common living. While vouchers seem to provide quicker and more efficient action to secure better schooling for a child, and, indeed, in some particular cases they do, collectively the mass use of vouchers forsakes important avenues of public change that, while much slower, are capable of achieving successful schooling for a wider array of children and better compromises between individual desires and public interests.28
Admittedly, parents seeking the best education possible for their child face an extremely difficult position when they are relegated to privately consider prioritizing the good of others in the long run, which should be a matter of public debate and action, over that of their own child in the moment. Barber adds, “Vouchers transform what ought to be a public question (‘What is a good system of public education for our children?’) into a personal question (‘What kind of school do I want for my children?’). It permits citizens to think of education as a matter of private preference and encourages them to dissociate the generational ties that bind them to their own children from the lateral ties that bind them (and their children) to other parents and children"29 In other words, market approaches like vouchers mistake school choice for an individual rather than a public choice.30 Such approaches abandon common living and shared aims, as well as ways of thinking, questioning, and acting that engage publicness as we face problems and construct solutions. They fail to fulfill the fifth aspect of functionally public schools because they do not enable, or encourage, democratic, justice, and freedom- oriented decision making.
Furthermore, Wendy Brown alarmingly depicts how the new economically conceived citizen, homo oeconomicus, risks the political viability of citizens:
When there is only homo oeconomicus, and when the domain of the political itself is rendered in economic terms, the foundation vanishes for citizenship concerned with public things and the common good. Here, the problem is not just that public goods are defunded and common ends are devalued by neoliberal reason, although this is so, but that citizenship itself loses its political valence and venue. Valence: homo oeconomicus approaches everything as a market and knows only market conduct; it cannot think public purposes or common problems in a distinctly political way. Venue: Political life, and the state in particular ... are remade by neoliberal rationality. The replacement of citizenship defined as concern with the public good by citizenship reduced to the citizen as homo oeconomicus also eliminates the very idea of a people, a demos asserting its collective political sovereignty.31
Schools forged under this market model of economic citizenship, then, forgo the public for the private, jeopardizing not only the public good, but also the practice of publicness, a key element of functionally public schools. Vouchers not only take public dollars and direct them toward private interests, but also take public problem solving and replace it with private, self-serving action. As Justice John Paul Stevens warned in his 2002 dissent against the use of vouchers, their use “weaken[s] the foundation of our democracy"32 And when economic justifications for schooling trump civic goals of creating and sustaining public life, “in losing sight of the public role of public education, we lose the process of public formation altogether and this is a very high price to pay"33
Indeed, this price is much more significant than many of the costs of education seen through a narrow lens of economics.