A personal story

Experiment: Tell the story behind the story.

So, long story short, my son has a school to go to now. In Nottingham, the system for schools allows parents to choose which school their child goes to. It is not a completely free market but generally, schools that are popular and in good, child-friendly neighborhoods fill up. Schools that are in less desirable neighborhoods are “undersubscribed”. It took several applications, many rejections, and 30+ missed days of school for him to be accepted to a school. The school that my son attends is just fine but because they are “undersubscribed” they receive less funding from the local government. Because they are in a less desirable neighborhood, they have more children living in poverty. They have a higher turnover of students and the kids who leave are the ones with mobility, not the neediest students. For the teachers, the work is harder and the resources are more limited. How can this kind of system be justified?

Milton Friedman is perhaps the most-quoted author on this subject. He strongly believes that,  “[allowing schools to compete for students] will unleash the drive, imagination, and energy of competitive free enterprise to revolutionize the education process. The competition will force government schools to improve in order to retain their clientele. Except for a small group who have a vested interest in the present system, everyone would win: parents, students, teachers, taxpayers, private entrepreneurs and, above all, the residents of the central cities” (Friedman, 1997, p. 341). Perhaps he would look at the Nottingham schools and see the school with 30 students per class as thriving (everyone wants to go there) and my son’s school as struggling. Potentially, a school with declining enrollment would eventually not be sustainable and would close, leaving the most vulnerable students without a neighborhood school and struggling to find a place in another school. Somehow, I think he would see that as an example of the “invisible hand of the market” helping good schools stay open and terrible ones to close. But, with his goals of social justice, did he really understand what that process would look like?

A city that intentionally creates policies that create thriving and struggling schools has bought into Friedman’s vision, but I struggle to understand how these decisions are made without considering the consequences. Who gains from struggling schools? When we create a system of schools that win, other schools lose. Those schools are not just buildings, they are families, children, teachers, and support workers. Setting up a market for schools and forcing them to compete creates losers where they didn’t exist before. “In human services, as neoliberalism has shown in other cases, to create a market you have to restrict the service in some way. In this case you have to ration education. What you sell, then, is a privilege – something that other people cannot get” (Connell, 2013 p.105). The school around the corner from our house is one of those schools, a school that turns away students. Living in the neighborhood does not make education a right, it makes it a privilege, and one that we didn’t get.

The neo-liberal view is that weakening the barriers between neighborhoods would allow students growing up in poverty to go to great schools. But, in reality, an incredible number of students are growing up poor, their schools are marked as the “losers”, and there are not enough places in other schools. Just because a choice is available doesn’t mean everyone gets to choose. This entrenches the poverty into specific schools. “Because markets accord more choice and hence more power, to the affluent, they often serve to perpetuate rather than arrest social inequality and social injustices” (Mintrom, 2003, p. 55). Social injustice is made even worse by the discourse around choice and individuality. Adding competition to the mix turns schools into a completely different kind of system. “While the ethics of competition cultivates fantasies, aspirations and generates possibilities to achieve them, it also encourages individuation and therefore diminishes sense of solidarity. The ethics becomes a part of us through the pedagogical experiences of everyday life under the rule of capital” (Kumar, 2010, p. 55). The decrease in solidarity for education, the increase in considering only about the placement of our own child, and the complete blindness toward the repercussion of allowing schools to “lose” is creating a society of people concerned only with themselves. Personally, I don’t think we can label that “society”.

 Here’s a striking example. When Australia launched their school ranking webiste, it was properly called “MySchool”, not “OurSchools”. “The unchallenged assumption of national and state policy is that whatever problem exists, market logic can fix it” (Connell, 2013, p. 104). So, who are schools really for? Your child? Or everyone’s children? Are we really so cutthroat to compete in a way that creates “losers”? I just don’t believe it.

For those of you who are worried: My son’s school is just fine. He has a great teacher, he is starting to make friends, and I don’t mind that he’s not attending “the best school”. Look, there’s even a rainbow overhead 🙂

Connell, R. (2013). The neoliberal cascade and education: an essay on the market agenda and its consequences. Critical Studies in Education, 54(2), 99-112. doi:10.1080/17508487.2013.776990

Friedman, M. (1997). Public Schools: Make Them Private. Education Economics, 5(3), 341-344. doi:10.1080/09645299700000026

Kumar, R. (2015). Education and the Politics of Capital: Perspective and Agenda for Resistance against Neoliberalism on JSTOR. Social Scientist, 38(9), 51-60.

Mintrom, M. (2003). Market Organizations And Deliberative Democracy: Choice and Voice in Public Service Delivery. Administration & Society, 35(1), 52-81. doi:10.1177/0095399702250346

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