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Home arrow Geography arrow Global Perspectives on Human Capital in Early Childhood Education: Reconceptualizing Theory, Policy, and Practice


Using Vouchers to Purchase and Pursue Quality: Convincing Smart Investments?

Education vouchers have been crossing nation-state boundaries as a globalized reform practice that offers hope for quality education while fixing the problems of accessibility, affordability, and accountability. In Hong Kong, the government articulated the voucher scheme as a policy to reduce parents’ financial burden, support ECEC professional upgrading, promote parental choice, and improve quality in ECEC (Education Bureau, 2015). However, this Hong Kong preschool voucher scheme is being implemented in an already highly competitive pure private sector that has no public provision of ECEC (Lee, 2012; Yuen & Grieshaber, 2008). In Taiwan, the sociopolitical rhetoric of the voucher policy has constructed vouchers as a promise to increase young children’s access to quality preschools, to support parental rights to choose their children’s education programs, to facilitate positive competition in the field of ECEC for higher quality, and to encourage non-licensed private programs to become legal and licensed programs since the 1990s (Lee, 2009). In Korea, tuition subsidies are seen as government investment to provide free, quality preschool education and care for all children.

Moreover, the concepts of freedom and choice are woven together to scaffold East Asian versions of preschool vouchers as a form of progressive educational reform. “Freedom” is a loaded political term that has become a universal signifier for democracy, social progress, or ultimate emancipation. Simultaneously, “choice” is thought of as a form of empowerment tagging along with the universal concept of freedom. Therefore, having the freedom to make a choice in itself is conceptualized as a form of democracy and liberation. Particularly, the notion of “democracy and liberation” in East Asian localities such as Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Korea has been intertwined with histories of decolonization and de-imperialism. In East Asian contexts, it is difficult to argue against freedom and choice as such concepts are taking on specific sociocultural meanings to form the core foundation of liberal democracy (e.g., see Chen, 2010). Because of the histories of colonization and contemporary political dictatorships in East Asian contexts, the notions of freedom and choice embody unique cultural imaginations. After all, to have power or to be freed or emancipated is highly desired as the ultimate achievement of modernization and democratization (Rose, 1999). Therefore, when being infused into East Asian preschool vouchers, the notion of “freedom to choose” could be dangerous as it wears the “skin” of progressive liberal democratization through which a narrative of ECEC as investment is fabricated to legitimatize a neoliberal imaginary.

In a nutshell, the ideas of preschool vouchers, coupons, and subsidies for preschools in East Asian contexts have multiple layers of meanings. Needless to say, preschool vouchers embody the global neoliberal rationality of freedom to choose for the East Asian ECEC systems. Neoliberal policies such as preschool vouchers in selected East Asian localities have been creating illusions of freedom, equality, and democracy (Lee, 2010). From a critical analysis, preschool vouchers amplify socioeconomic differences and sustain or even further perpetuate the existing status quo for children and their families. Such a false hope about vouchers is a global phenomenon and it is associated with the limitation of neoliberal policies in their inabilities to challenge deeper social inequalities with an economic rationality. As Whitty argues,

Atomized decision-making in a highly stratified society may appear

to give everyone equal opportunities but transforming responsibility

for decision-making from the public to the private sphere can actually reduce the scope for collective action to improve the quality of education for all. (1997, p. 58)

Approaching social inequalities through economic rationality and shifting collective responsibility to individual responsibility through neoliberal policies such as preschool vouchers for tuition subsidies can dangerously miss the complexities of power/knowledge relations. Rather than challenging inequalities toward social justice, preschool vouchers ironically work to perpetuate social stratification by activating a narrative of education as personal/individual choice for investment.

Therefore, when going beyond the face value of neoliberalism, preschool vouchers function as social and cultural administration in which new norms and truths are produced to (re)define the normative ways of thinking, acting, and being. That is, under neoliberal logic, vouchers work to produce sociocultural disciplinary guidelines, creating new normative understandings of what “smart” parents should do when it comes to making good choices for quality preschools for their children. Moreover, informed by Foucault’s notion of govern- mentality (a power that produces rather than represses our subjectivities), it becomes possible to critique how neoliberal reform discourses such as preschool vouchers produce a different kind of “knowledge” as the truth.

Shaping a new narrative for all, ECEC has become a kind of social investment through which parents are now given vouchers as a form of government subsidy/capital to purchase quality preschool education and care for their children. In Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Korea, the construction of education as investment has been well circulated. Hence neoliberal policies like vouchers can be conceptualized as “technologies of the self” through which the governing of others and the governing of the self are interlaced together by reform discourses to instruct how one should act or think or be (Foucault, 1978/1990). Therefore, vouchers are less about emancipation and more about specifying the parameters of conduct (e.g., see Lather, 2004; Popkewitz, 2006). Who we are and how we should be to become autonomous and productive beings is now the result of internal rather than external factors. This alteration concerning how we are governed while we simultaneously become self-disciplined as we accept the economic rationalities through vouchers as the “norms” and “truths” is a significant effect of neoliberalism that needs to be examined.

In other words, through vouchers, parents are transformed into smart buyers/investors regarding their children’s preschool education and care, responsible to make smart use of government subsidies as additional capital for purchasing quality education and care. Children are treated as human capital or human resources whereas preschools (both private and public) are institutions that manufacture and cultivate desirable skills and talents as “dividends.”

Some Concluding Thoughts: Issues of Quality and Equity in Early Childhood Education

In the mist of the neoliberal imaginary, a hegemonic narrative of ECEC as investment has been made intelligible in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Korea. Through the three stories from East Asia our intention is not to examine whether contemporary reform policies such as preschool vouchers are good or bad or right or wrong. Instead, our discussions aim to unpack the glocal effects of neoliberalism in order to shed light on the embedded systems of reasoning that underpin the intelligibility of children as human capital and ECEC as investment through which our “common sense” about children and preschool educare is (re)organized and constructed.

What we have intended to do through the arguments in this chapter is a theoretical, methodological, and analytical shift toward social epistemology (Popkewitz, 1991) through which the construction and intelligibility of the new narrative of ECEC as investment are problematized and destabilized for a deeper understanding of the effects of educational reform discourses. This shift allows us to focus on how reform discourses function as normalizing technologies to produce normative narratives by simultaneously denaturalizing the production of the hope of progress and unpacking the production of a silent panic. Such a shift also enables us to rethink issues of quality and equity in early childhood education in East Asian contexts.

While ECEC as investment has been effective at “bringing” more funding into preschool education and care through the implementation of vouchers, tuition coupons, and subsidies in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Korea, it is important to note that such a grand narrative can dangerously miss the core meaning of ECEC (e.g., see Moss, 2013). Why do societies need quality ECEC? Why should we be limited by an economic formula that re-narrates the meaning of education by believing that if we invest a certain amount of money now as a smart investment in children’s education and care, we will get a larger amount back in the near future? To invest requires capital, but how much capital could be considered a sufficient amount? How do we address social equity and equality when it comes to a question of economic capital in different households?

This economic logic as used to understand education inevitably filters out the possibilities for deeper discussion on what quality education and care may mean for all young children. Shouldn’t children have the right to equal access in ECEC settings? Moving toward a “rights-based” analytical framework opens up a new possibility to discuss children’s right to quality educare.

Rather than being limited to a hegemonic narrative of ECEC as investment, we advocate for the need to think outside of the dominant system of reasoning to imagine a different “narrative” about quality education and care for all children. We call for more critical discussions rooted in ethical concerns to elucidate how neoliberal constructions of ECEC as investment can dangerously shift the constructions of freedom, equity, and democracy at global and local levels to reconfigure a dominant but conservative trajectory of modernization in East Asia.

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