Education Reform Research School Choice

The Politics and Ideology of School Choice Research

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Julian Vasquez Heilig, T. Jameson Brewer, and Frank Adamson recently published an analysis of the neoliberal roots of school choice and its spillover into research on school choice.

They begin:

To conceptualize the politics of research on school choice, it is important to first discuss the politics of market- based approaches within the broader purview of public policy. Modern notions of “markets” and “choice” in schooling stem from the libertarian ideas Milton Friedman espoused in the 1950s. As these ideologies escalated in the 1980s under neoliberal theory and Republican orthodoxy, the argument that parents should have choice between competing schools within an education market with little regulation began to crack the public schoolhouse door, allowing an influx of private school vouchers and charter schools.

The ideology of a competitive education market supposes that competition and deregulation are necessary and fundamentally positive forces that will “fix” the “failed” public school sector (Vasquez Heilig, 2013). Mundy and Murphy (2000) argued that to build public support for their approaches, neoliberal proponents focus on three organizing economic rationales: 1) efficiency, 2) the axis of competition- choice- quality, and 3) the apparent scarcity of resources. On the supply side, neoliberals argue that private firms deliver goods and services more efficiently than the government. On the demand side, neoliberals “promote competition as a means to deliver more consumer choice, which theoretically leads to higher quality products” (Adamson & Astrand, 2016, p. 9).

Because school choice is a policy prescription, research and evaluation often follow soon after the policies are implemented. In theory, new reforms should be piloted, researched, and then deter-mined to what extent they can— or should— be scaled. School choice advocates work backward: They conduct multiple experiments on communities in an attempt to justify a policy rooted in ideology rather than empirical evidence. In fact, Lubienski and Weitzel (2010) found that many states passed laws supporting charter school expansion at a faster rate than they could build the schools and faster than the normal research cycle needed to determine their effectiveness. Furthermore, this ideology presupposes the efficiency and effectiveness of educational markets, requiring education to be understood as an individualistic good rather than a public one.

The dichotomy between the concepts of a “public” or a “private” good rests at the center of school choice approaches. The idea of education as a public, or common, good views it through the lens of the collective and, theoretically, ensures equal access and equitable experiences. Conceptions of education as a common good— in the same way we conceptualize, say, police/ fire services, public libraries, and public roads— stem from the understanding that individuals in society share an obligation to one another, and if we collectively focus on improvement, we collectively benefit.

The contrasting view is the ideology rooted in Friedman’s (1955) rugged individualism, with a limited conception of public or common goods. According to Friedman, there is little collective obligation to one another, and a self- interested focus on personal improvement will, theoretically, improve the collective. Note that within this theory, the byproduct of collective improvement is not necessarily a result of a spillover from the individual to the collective; rather, through hyper- individualistic accountability, everyone for him or herself, the improvement of individuals will, taken as a whole, represent the improvement of the masses. The conceptualization of education as an individualistic good— a commodity to be bought, sold, and traded in educational markets— requires a reliance on a theory of meritocracy, whereby success is “attainable” through education and “hard work.” By definition, success is the result of making use of such things. Poverty, then, becomes evidence of poor choices and a failure to pull oneself up by one’s bootstraps rather than an economically produced phenomenon. This myth that associates hard work with morals not only allows for the crass dismissal of systemic poverty and racism endemic in American society, but also informs how we conceive of educational choices within an educational marketplace. School “choice” systems in education further exacerbate individualistic accountability while also reinforcing the façade that success or poverty is a choice between working hard or failing to seize an opportunity. That is, if the choice exists for a “better” education in a charter school or by use of a school voucher, then generational poverty shifts the locus of accountability to the individual and family for failure to take advantage of the choice. Put simply, the presence of additional choices in education redefines public policy failures not as collective ones but as individualistic failures understood through deficit ideologies.

Considering the underlying politics of school choice, it is important to examine the ramifications of neoliberal and collective ideology on market- based school choice research. In this chapter, we point out that ideologically driven, neoliberal organizations push a sector of research suggesting positive findings of school choice models. We begin with a synthesis of the pertinent literature on the conceptions and funding of market- based school choice research. Next, we discuss the role of the production and politics of market- based school choice research in conceptualizing the current educational policy environment. In the third section, we delve into the politics of the use of market- based school choice research, focusing on the community level. We conclude by discussing the implications of how the comingling of ideology, methods, and funding informs the public discourse about market- based school choice and fits into the larger conversation about education reform.

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