Public Education | Participatory Democracy: After Neoliberalism

Neoliberalism & Privatization

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Neoliberalism is not new, first appearing as a state formation in 1973 Chile, as David Harvey and others note, and later appearing in the US and UK in the 1980s during the Reagan and Thatcher administrations. The use of neoliberal political economy to reshape education, however, began earlier. School vouchers, credited to the Nobel laureate, Milton Friedman, for example, appeared as a popular educational solution in the 1950s. In anticipation of the Supreme Court ruling on Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka Kansas, support for vouchers became a strategy the finance private schooling with public funds. Deborah Owens Duncan quotes Frank Chodorov, an economist, from a 1954 editorial, A Solution to Our Public School Problem,

This is not a proposal to abolish public schools. It is a proposal to put them into competition with free enterprise schools, so they can prove their worth. And this can be done by the remission to parents of the taxes they are compelled to pay to support politically-controlled schools, in an amount comparable to what they pay for private schooling. The method of effecting this remission – whether by deductions from income taxes or allowances from local levies – is a technical matter; if the principle established that a parent has the right to buy the educational service he deems best for his child, the fiscal problen [sic] of tax remission could be solved.

The Citizens’ Council was a formidable political group in the 1950s. Also known as the White Citizens’ Council, it is now the Council of Conservative Citizens. In 1956, a former head of the Citizens’ Council stated,

As long as we can legislate, we can segregate.

Harvey distinguishes neoliberalism as theory from the pragmatics of its use, particularly when the principles of the theory are set aside to ensure the redistribution and consolidation of wealth into the hands of the few and the distribution of disenfranchisement of too many. The pragmatics of neoliberalism have steeped in american education for 60 years now.

Neoliberalism, despite its name, has noting to do with new liberals. If fact, liberals buy into it’s ideology as do conservatives. Instead it is economic theory transformed into policy and conditions of life. Neoliberalism creates the individual as an identity in competition with others and inscribes the corporate language onto people. For example, we can think of ourselves as “products” of public or private education, because we’ve bought into education being an assembly line that produced us.

What’s happening to education is not a liberal or conservative issue. NCLB of the George W. Bush administration and Race to the Top were bipartisan and their impact on students and families has been non-partisan. While poor communities and communities of color feel the brunt neoliberal education reform, families in the shrinking middle class are also impacted despite their political affiliations. Neoliberalism is economic theory turned against the people who participate in the economy. One of the key features of neoliberalism is privatization

Privatization in this neoliberal sense, should not be confused with transforming schools into private schools as a recent episode of The Fosters portrayed. Students and families in major cities and suburbs across the nation now live in the aftermath of limited resources transferred from public neighborhood schools to entities such as school turnaround programs, school management organizations, charter schools, contract schools, corporate schools, military schools, and school vouchers. These neoliberal efforts not only affect students in under-resourced and shuttered schools, but also families with students currently in, previously in, and desiring to be in privatized options that fall short of their promises. During a restroom break at a meeting with New York activist for public education, mothers and grandmothers continued the conversation on what to do with families that were choosing charter schools over public schools. One grandmother stated that they did not have to worry, because 

Nothing politicizes parents more than putting their kids through a lottery or having them pushed out of a school. We just need to be there for them when it happens.

Hope that school choice and better performance fueled by competition among schools, test scores, fiscal efficiencies, and seats in schools is waning as families and communities have fewer school systems obligated to educate each and every child. And in some places we now have school deserts. With the neoliberal privatization of public education, public money is used to legally exclude and push students out of schools.

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