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Marketing Schools, Marketing Cities: Who Wins and Who Loses When Schools Become Urban Amenities

reviewed by Corey Savage - April 18, 2014

coverTitle: Marketing Schools, Marketing Cities: Who Wins and Who Loses When Schools Become Urban Amenities
Author(s): Maia B. Cucchiara
Publisher: University of Chicago Press, Chicago
ISBN: 022601682X, Pages: 304, Year: 2013
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Markets have increasingly become the go-to policy initiative across every sector.  Indeed, we have become much accustomed to market-based reforms in education in the last few decades: vouchers, charter schools, privatization, etc.  Magnet schools—high quality public schools typically with lottery entrance—have been a popular technique to attract “more desirable” residents into the city schools while also giving a better option to low income families.  Very seldom discussed are the impacts of such reforms on low income families on any other metric than average student achievement.  Grounded in the urban politics and school choice literature, Maia Cucchiara presents readers with an in-depth account of one school marketed and transformed by the Center City Schools Initiative (CCSI) in Philadelphia.  She argues that as the center city prioritized the needs for professional families in its schools, the district, in turn, undermined the voice and value of low income residents, creating significant issues with equity and the definition of citizenship.

Cucchiara first briefly discusses the history of Philadelphia and the state of schools in the city prior to the intervention.  Typical of other northern cities, Philadelphia became home to many African-Americans who fled the Jim Crow South.  In the mid-20th century, the combination of the loss of manufacturing jobs and the targeted suburban subsidization and segregation of the cities left Philadelphia and many other cities across the country on life support.  The author goes on to describe a common mechanism used to counteract urban decline, the business improvement district (BID).  The idea behind such an initiative echoes the idea behind the CCSI: keep businesses and middle and upper middle class residents in the city.  These initiatives in Philadelphia, as in many other cities, exacerbated inequalities and cut much of the rest of the city off from the economically improving city center.  Schools in the city struggled financially and were “plagued by student achievement.”  Other than the Big Three (viable school options in the city center), schools in Philadelphia were “institutions of last resort.”   Cucchiara describes this historical and political backdrop as the rationale for convincing many residents that the CCSI was a reasonable approach.

The author goes on to describe the CCSI in depth.  The initiative, run by the BID, was designed to attract and retain professionals and their families by marketing the elementary schools in the center city, the Big Three.  The CCSI privileged professional families, giving those living in center city priority to enroll in the schools.  Further, the CCSI brought additional resources and attention to the center city schools while giving professional families prioritized communication abilities with schools and the district.  This prioritization, as Cucchiara describes, diverted attention from those less fortunate in the city, exacerbating inequality.  While some recognized that low income residents were losing out, the importance of keeping middle class and professional families in the city received greater attention.  By doing so, the author describes, the city failed in its mission to provide equal educational opportunity to all.

To investigate how the effort to market public schools to professional families impacts equity and citizenship, Cucchiara conducts an ethnography on one of the center city schools.  Through interview and observation, she documents how the schools were marketed and the transformations made to retain the professional families the district coveted, coveted commodities much like the schools themselves.  On the flip side, low-income and minority students became a liability much in line with the discourse with race, class, and geography in urban areas, which Cucchiara documents artfully.  A few examples of the marketing techniques include renovations, a new principal, website marketing, and cocktail parties.  Transformations undergone to retain the families included giving extra power, attention and voice.  While the author recognizes that hearing the voices of parents is important and that there is value in the efforts given by the professional class families, this institutional structure undermined and gave incentives to ignore the voices of those most in need.  While the problems caused by the CCSI were eventually recognized, the patterns put into place “furthered the creation of a two-tiered system of educational options and resources across the city’s schools” (p. 192).

Though critics will play the external validity card, the ethnography laid out by Cucchiara in this book absolutely must reach the ear of policy makers and advocates for market-reform across all sectors.  While professional class families do bring value to a city, how they are attracted and who is impacted as a result is a vital consideration, as the author describes in depth.  What at first seem to be fairly extreme policy recommendations given in the last chapter soon become the only remedy one can imagine.  The United States has long been a country that prides itself in providing equal opportunity on the surface but has failed to meet this responsibility.  Maia Cucchiara has acknowledged inequity and laid out a path to the future where every child truly has an equal opportunity to succeed.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: April 18, 2014
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17503, Date Accessed: 11/29/2021 9:39:42 AM

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