Background/Context: This paper is in dialogue with critical policy scholarship that has developed a certain consensus about what neoliberalism is and what its impact has been on recent education policy. A substantial part of the paper comprises a synthesis of recent German scholarship on neoliberal education policies in that country.
Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: Drawing on critical analysis of neoliberal education policy, this paper examines a recent education reform measure in Hamburg, Germany. A key component of the intended reform measure was defeated by a ballot initiative spearheaded by a coalition of Hamburg residents widely understood to represent the city’s wealthy elite. Making sense of the controversy over this reform measure is the central goal of this paper. To do so, I identify five features of neoliberal education policy in Germany and use them as a framework within which to read the specific reform measure in Hamburg and the resistance to it.
Research Design: This paper reports an interpretive policy analysis and draws on document sources from four interpretive communities: (a) Hamburg’s education ministry; (b) two pro-reform coalitions; (c) one anti-reform coalition; and (c) news media sources. A total of 389 documents were collected for this study, to which I applied a grounded theory approach for data analysis.
Conclusions/Recommendations: By reading this controversy against previous scholarship on neoliberal education policy, I argue that this specific case of education reform in Hamburg does not follow the pattern such analysis would predict. By stressing this divergence, I neither intend to challenge the consensus on neoliberalism within critical policy scholarship, nor to position this reform policy as a panacea to neoliberal ills. Rather, I argue that the anomalous nature of this specific reform effort in Hamburg provides two unique analytical opportunities: (a) to understand more deeply the constraints imposed by neoliberalism on schooling, especially in a context of policy making that bucks the neoliberal trend; and (b) to identify more clearly what educational policy strategies are required to move beyond neoliberal imperatives for schooling and society.