Conflation of Private Interests and Public Goods
Corporate providers of education tend to see the public they serve not as a larger collective body that constructs public goods, but rather as sets of consumers or customers seeking private returns.61 As evidenced by surveys of British parents asked about the educational choices they make, many have come to see themselves as consumers, suggesting that this term is not merely applied by the promoters of corporate models, but adopted by the participants themselves—a trend I suspect carries over in the United States as well.62 Certainly this is the case with the language and approaches increasingly used by public schools in the United States today. In my city of Cincinnati, our superintendent recently commented on a change to our magnet school enrolment program by saying, “Parents, as our customers, have spoken through this process, and we think we have a responsibility to be responsive to our customers’ demands"63 Elsewhere, the Charlotte-Mecklenberg schools now offer their consumers a Return on Investment Calculator on their website.64 And, responding to the language of competition and choice in Indiana’s voucher system, the superintendent of Ft. Wayne Community Schools shifted to describing parents there as “customers"65
Consumerism in education has a tendency to work against public goods. This is largely because education consumers have sought personal advantage via schooling, primarily through degrees, certifications, and markers of educational prestige. Many parents, especially those from the middle and upper classes, seek educational hierarchies that serve to distinguish their child from the pack, thereby giving them social mobility.66 Those are private goods, which work mostly to the advantage of the individual recipient, and though they may have some impact on others, they offer little explicit benefit to collective knowledge or social well-being.
Yet evidence shows that many parents, especially those who are working class or poor, choose and celebrate schools that are not necessarily the best in terms of test scores and other more supposedly objective measurements. This suggests that the market is not straightforward, but rather is created through choices that are not always rational in the neoliberal sense.67 Many of us are persuaded to select a school by the appearance of the school facility, while others, especially linguistic and racial minority citizens, may seek schools in their communities that reflect their experiences and culture, regardless of their academic performance or ability to help a child “get ahead" factors that may underlie the choices of white and wealthy parents.68 The factors influencing our choices reveal some variation among not only elements of our demographics that contribute to our choices, but also the extent to which our choices are aligned with neoliberal views of how the market in education should work.
As Chester E. Finn begrudgingly admits,
Although school-choice enthusiasts, myself included, insist that parents can be counted on to make wise education choices for their children, the charter school experience shows that many families lack decent comparative information about their school options and that many are content with such school attributes as safety, convenience, a welcoming atmosphere, and “caring" teachers. In other words, the school’s academic effectiveness doesn’t rank high. Which means many parents who enroll their kids in academically mediocre schools, cheerfully keep them there.69
Despite the fact that parents often don’t make choices that EMO operators see as wise, EMO advertising materials continue to recommend that parents remove their children from the traditional public schools so they can acquire a better education for their child—an individual good—rather than working to improve those traditional schools that serve a community of children and families—a public and individual good. Perhaps the criteria that parents do employ when deciding to stay put in underperforming schools is more aligned with social relationships, interpersonal care, and collective well-being than the neoliberal rationale that is assumed to be common sense.
Additionally, the market, with its focus on individuals and personal success, sometimes at the expense of others, can do very little to help us make wise choices about living democratically in fair ways. Traditionally, however, schools have been expected to fulfill this very task.70 Biesta points out, “It is important to remember that parental choice in itself can hardly be called democratic if it is not a part of a wider democratic deliberation about the aims and shape of education in society. If this broader deliberation is lacking, parental choice leads to what Michael Apple aptly describes as the
‘conversion of economic and social capital into cultural capital.’ In such a situation parental choice simply reproduces existing inequalities"71 In this view, choice accompanied by open public dialogue about the educational purposes supported by parents would be more likely to have just and democratic outcomes.
The public served by EMO schools, then, is viewed as a loosely associated collection of self-interested individuals who begin as consumers and are preparing themselves for entering their own lives into a market of exchange. In their study of charter schools, Wells, Slayton, and Scott72 note that school operators narrowly conceive of the public in this way, as consuming parents who enact school choice for the private goals of themselves or their children. Given this, it seems that when public charter schools or other types of newly developing public schools embrace serving private ends nearly exclusively, they cannot adequately meet the requirements of functioning public schools or perhaps even sufficiently develop thoughtful and active citizens.73 It seems that for-profit charter schools and others closely following similar economic ideologies cannot be reconciled with education for democracy as long as public life is conflated, rather than appropriately balanced, with private interests, and as long as rationality is reduced to self-interested behavior.