Once upon a time we had Paul Goodman, A. S. Neill and widespread disenchantment with public education. It was bureaucratic, conformist, top-down and smothered creativity. If you were countercultural it was hopelessly straight; if you were from a minority community it was neocolonial. We hated it.
But what to do about it? There were two fundamental options. One was to demand to open it up, make it more democratic with local control and lots of input and accountability. This was the way of voice. The other was to give parents the option of taking their children out of schools they didn’t like and shopping around for one they did. That was exit.
Both were tried. We had showdowns over community control and much more intense politics around school board elections. And we also had a revival of home schooling and the expansion of private schools, which now not only served the elite and religious families but also those fleeing from integration and changing neighborhood patterns.
But then exit won. Educational policy was largely reframed around the concept of parental choice. Students were viewed as primarily consumers of education services, and schools were to be subjected to market discipline. The benefits of education were measured in individual student outcomes, from test scores to post-graduation earnings. Schools and the teachers they employ should compete to produce the best outcomes, with the winners rewarded and the losers driven out of business. The market model reached down into the early grades and extended upward to colleges and universities, who were now required to finance themselves through tuition—fee for services.
Maybe there is a good account of this process that explains why it turned out this way. If there is I haven’t seen it. But an adequate explanation has to take account of the larger picture, the supremacy of neoliberalism in most spheres of social and economic policy and the international dimensions of this shift.
This meditation is prompted by a story this morning about the highly successful schools labeled as “failing” under No Child Left Behind. If this were simply about methods of classification I’m sure a solution could be found. That, however, would miss the point of NCLB, which was never simply about assigning labels.
As originally proposed, schools deemed to be “failing” were to be replaced by charters, or parents would have the option of withdrawing from public schools altogether and taking their per-student money with them, or both. In other words, it was a backdoor effort to privatize public education. But this was too brazen, so it was scaled back. Instead, “failing” schools would be penalized with less funding, with the expectation that they would fail that much more, precipitating a downward spiral that would result, sooner or later, in a less- or non-public replacement. Of course, with this objective, the rules for what constitutes “failure” were written to practically guarantee that, sooner or later, every public school would qualify. (Somehow charters and private schools were exempt from this defunding ploy. Surprise.)
The problem was that, as the law was written, the rate of public school “failure” was much greater than the rate at which privatized alternatives could be created. It was chaos. So under Obama NCLB has been scaled back. Public schools can buy more time. They can institute pay and personnel policies tied to test scores to simulate market outcomes rather than subjecting schools to actual, flesh-and-blood exit. States are rewarded for gradually turning their public schools into charters. It is much more civilized, but the frame remains a service provision model in which funding exits when service quality is assessed as insufficient. Since you can’t withdraw funding from the number of schools expected to be judged delinquent, you need a sector not subject to the rules—the privatized, market-driven sector. NCLB is still predicated, in the end, on a systematic shift from the first to the second.
The irony in all this is that countries that have the best education systems, like Finland, rely principally on voice, not exit. Teachers play a central role in creating curriculum and schools are deeply embedded in their communities. The emphasis is on intrinsic motivation rather than carrot-and-stick market incentives.
Which brings us back to the main question: why, in the face of all the rather obvious arguments to the contrary, did the marketizers win in the US? Why are they on the offensive worldwide, and why does public-anything—public schools, public broadcasting, public enterprise—fight a rearguard battle?