The New Political Economy of Urban Education: Neoliberalism, Race, and the Right to the City
reviewed by Noel S. Anderson - August 15, 2011
Title: The New Political Economy of Urban Education: Neoliberalism, Race, and the Right to the City
Author(s): Pauline Lipman
Publisher: Routledge, New York
ISBN: 0415802245, Pages: 224, Year: 2011
Search for book at Amazon.com
Public education is a contested term. Sure, residents of the United States have access to schools without cost, and each of the 50 states have some provision in their constitution for public education. Yet the belief that public schools will continue to be the domain of just government or that public education will not disappear altogether is increasingly becoming a naïve assumption. Across the country, cash-strapped states and struggling municipalities are engaging in partnerships with private companies to manage crucial public services. The city of New Orleans, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, closed down its public schools and repurposed them into charter schools. In fact, currently, New Orleans is the largest charter school experiment in the country, with the majority of its public schools being outsourced to private companies and not-for-profits.
From public housing to public parks, from bridges and tunnels to parking meters, entities that were once the sole domain of government are being doled out to companies who, put simply, extract private profit from our public tax dollars. With more private companies controlling public services, questions arise as to whom or what is really accountable to the public? And more broadly, what is public anymore?
These questions should not be relegated to armchair debates but require real and thoughtful answers since they impact the everyday lives of everyday people. Refreshingly, Pauline Lipman, a professor of Educational Policy Studies at the University of Illinois-Chicago, in her new book, The New Political Economy of Urban Education: Neoliberalism, Race and the Right to the City is attempting to seek answers, as she probes the ways in which the changing urban landscape has shaped (re-shaped) urban education.
Lipman examines urban political economy through the lens of neoliberalism. Neoliberalism describes a political, social and economic phenomenon, where, as a consequence, public services shift increasingly into the hands of private companies. Under the neoliberal enterprise, government does not become smaller or disappear, necessarily, as conservatives or neoconservatives would hope, but it becomes the conduit for private investment and services. Subsequently, the welfare state is challenged and democratic procedures are usurped as the public becomes less involved in the distribution and oversight of government services, like public schools. In sum, the public good becomes more identified, defined and directed by the private sector.
The term neoliberalism, emerging from the field of political science and subsequently spreading to almost every other discipline, has been used to explain globalization and the behaviors of migrating transnational corporations to the unfettered consumerism of youth and popular culture.
In the field of urban education, neoliberal reform has replaced the ubiquitous term business model, a broad concept that was to blame for corporate-minded school reform efforts in decades past. Back then the business model explained everything, although business models of various types (e.g., Taylorism in educational administration) have shaped public schooling since the age of industrialization in the U.S.
The concept of neoliberalism tends to be so misapplied that it runs the risk of being void of any explanatory power. Every problematic reform effort in education, currently, is collapsed under neoliberal, and the term is becoming a proxy for explaining complex educational policies. Yet, when it comes time to connect the dots, showing how neoliberalism as the root causes errant policies, the reasoning becomes spurious at best.
Many school reform policies, like school vouchers, for instance, tend to be labeled neoliberal, as if they emerged on the scene in recent years and were promoted by corporate elites. School vouchers predate the emergence of neoliberalism, championed by southern segregationists in order to usurp Brown v. Board of Education and maintain racially separate and unequal schools. In fact, some of the most prominent Christian academies and universities in the south came to life because of voucher programs.
What is glaringly different in present day, however, is that under the neoliberal enterprise, public services, such as public education for instance, are not being informed by private sector concepts but are becoming new markets for companies. While government supposedly gains the administrative efficiency of the private sector to run bloated and failing bureaucratic school systems, companies are expanding their revenue streams into the public sector. The underlying belief is that the rationality of the market place will rescue an overburdened welfare state, that the competition of the private sector will transform monopolistic public institutions, and that business-oriented leaders are, well, just plain and simply smarter than the do-gooders running school systems.
Lipman takes issue with this not so recent turn in the urban landscape. She starts her book off by unpacking the ways in which neoliberal urbanism has impacted education policy over the last three decades or more. She illustrates in sweeping prose the ways neoliberalism has impacted housing, taxation and governance of schools in urban centers. She takes careful aim at Chicago, as an illustration of mayoral control of schools, also citing Arne Duncans Renaissance 2010 initiative as CEO of Chicago Public Schools (which morphed into his Race to the Top initiative as U.S. Secretary of Education), as well as the proliferation of charter schools run by private organizations that have transformed how schools are run. She argues that we have moved away from government to governance of public education, with the control in the hands of unaccountable organizations, like corporations and philanthropies.
Despite her energetic analysis of the nexus between political economy, neoliberalism and school reform, Lipman falls short of thoroughly interrogating how the major neoliberal policies for schools, especially the ones being promoted as so called evidence based by Secretary Arne Duncan and the Obama administration, do not work. For instance, merit pay (or incentive pay) for teachers has proven not to raise students test scores, nor improve teacher quality. We have data that shows increasing accountability in schools has not increased the college-going rate of poor and working class youth of color. Charter schools do not produce better results than traditional public schools. Lipman seems to focus laboriously on how the government is handing over schools, which is an important target since it illustrates that profit motives override the concern for the public good. But much of this argument could be bolstered with evidence that business-oriented education leaders are actually not smarter and that they are, in fact, working with a series of broken tools and failed strategies.
Lipmans chapter on venture philanthropy is a great example of how wealth and foundations have sought to shape the education of the most vulnerable. From the establishment of private academies for Native Americans in the 1800s to the creation of higher education institutions for Blacks during Reconstruction, wealthy philanthropists have had their hand in dictating what is the public good. Yet in the current milieu, philanthropists have stretched their dollars and business ideas to actually direct and oversee public education. This uber-paternalism is unmatched in recent history. And with the public sector continuing to falter, shedding jobs along the way and Wall Street thriving due to generous government support along the way, Goliath seems to be beating David with his own slingshot.
But Lipman, like the rest of us, holds out hope in this book for a transformation of values and of systems, so that everyday people can reclaim the public sphere, public schools, and continue to hold accountable those responsible for governing our everyday lives.