Neoliberalism Undermines the Common Good by Promoting Vouchers and Charter Schools

When you read about “neoliberalism,” do you clearly understand the term and what people mean when they talk about neoliberal education reform?  It is confusing because “neoliberal” is used to describe policies we typically think of as politically conservative, while political liberals are the people we think of as supporting programs typified by Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.  How is it that we call the people who support school privatization through vouchers and charter schools “neoliberals?”

For those of us who are not political theorists, Robert Kuttner simply and clearly defines “neoliberalism.” Kuttner is the  co-founder and co-editor of The American Prospect and a professor at Brandeis University’s Heller School. Kuttner hardly touches on the specific area of neoliberalism as it applies to public education, but his precise definition is invaluable for clarifying our thinking. “It’s worth taking a moment to unpack the term ‘neoliberalism.’ The coinage can be confusing to American ears because the ‘liberal’ part refers not to the word’s ordinary American usage, meaning moderately left-of-center, but to classical economic liberalism otherwise known as free-market economics. The ‘neo’ part refers to the reassertion of the claim that the laissez-faire model of the economy was basically correct after all. Few proponents of these views embraced the term neoliberal. Mostly, they called themselves free-market conservatives. ‘Neoliberal’ was a coinage used mainly by their critics, sometimes as a neutral descriptive term, sometimes as an epithet. The use became widespread in the era of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.”

Kuttner traces the history of neoliberalism: “Since the late 1970s. we’ve had a grand experiment to test the claim that free markets really do work best… (I)n the 1970s, libertarian economic theory got another turn at bat…  Neoliberalism’s premise is that free markets can regulate themselves; that government is inherently incompetent, captive to special interests, and an intrusion on the efficiency of the market; that in distributive terms, market outcomes are basically deserved; and that redistribution creates perverse incentives by punishing the economy’s winners and rewarding its losers. So government should get out of the market’s way.”

“Beginning in the 1970s, resurrected free-market theory was interwoven with both conservative politics and significant investments in the production of theorists and policy intellectuals. This occurred not just in well-known conservative think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute, Heritage, Cato, and the Manhattan Institute, but through more insidious investments in academia. Lavishly funded centers and tenured chairs were underwritten by the Olin, Scaife, Bradley, and other far-right foundations to promote such variants of free-market theory as law and economics, public choice, rational choice, cost-benefit analysis, maximize-shareholder-value, and kindred schools of thought.”

Kuttner traces the impact of neoliberal theory on the broader economy: “By the 1990s, even moderate liberals had been converted to the belief that social objectives can be achieved by harnessing the power of markets… Now, after nearly half a century, the verdict is in. Virtually every one of these policies has failed, even on their own terms.  Enterprise has been richly rewarded, taxes have been cut, and regulation reduced or privatized. The economy is vastly more unequal, yet economic growth is slower and more chaotic than during the era of managed capitalism.  Deregulation has produced not salutary competition, but market concentration.  Economic power has resulted in feedback loops of political power, in which elites make rules that bolster further concentration… This is a story of power using theory.”

Moving closer to what has happened in the area of public education, Kuttner adds: “In addition to deregulation, three prime areas of practical neoliberal policies are the use of vouchers as ‘market-like’ means to social goals, the privatization of public services, and the use of tax subsidies rather than direct outlays. In every case, government revenues are involved, so this is far from a free market to begin with. But the premise is that market disciplines can achieve public purposes more efficiently than direct public provision.”

Kuttner skims only briefly the role of neoliberalism in various areas of public policy including healthcare, housing, incarceration, transportation and education.  Providing the direct link from neoliberal economic theory to its consequences for our nation’s public schools, last Friday, Diane Ravitch posted a commentary by Shawgi Tell, a professor of education at Nazareth College in New York, who examines the role of neoliberalism in public education policy. Tell is responding to a recent Washington Post column in which David Osborne argues: “‘Privatization’ doesn’t make charter schools bad. It makes them like Obamacare and Medicare.” Tell condemns Osborne’s column as the epitomy of neoliberalism. David Osborne is the Director of the Reinventing America’s Schools project at the Progressive Policy Institute.

Tell describes Osborne’s work: “David Osborne is one of America’s foremost neoliberal demagogues. He is a major representative of the so called ‘Third Way,’ a clever label for destructive neoliberal aims, policies, and arrangements.  His constant attacks on public right can be found at the website of the Progressive Policy Institute, which is not progressive at all…. Osborne has spent much of his life attacking the public sector and pushing for its privatization (‘reinvention’) as fast as possible.  He has long been heavily funded by wealthy private interests that support neoliberal policies in every sector and sphere of society.  In the sphere of education, Osborne has been a relentless supporter of privately-operated, low-transparency charter schools, which are notorious for being unaccountable, segregated, deunionized, and corrupt.”

Tell condemns the distortions he notices in Osborne’s recent Washington Post column: “The core and stubborn error with Osborne’s entire ‘argument’ here and elsewhere, is that it rests mainly on thoroughly and deliberately confusing the critical difference between the private and public spheres, including the very different aims, roles, and purposes of each in a modern society….  Osborne desperately wants people to believe that it is more than OK if public goods, programs, and services are operated, ‘delivered,’ or owned by the private sector. He claims that such an arrangement does not render something privatized or problematic, and that it should not really matter who runs things, as long as ‘the results’ are ‘good.'”

Tell explains why it is so important to understand that public and private mean different things. “Public and private mean the opposite of each other… Public refers to everyone, the common good, the general interests of society.  Public means inclusive, open and non-rivalrous.  A public service, for example, is usually free or close to free so that it is accessible by all. A public good is one that benefits everyone, whether they use it or not.  Private, on the other hand, means exclusive, not for everyone, not inclusive, not shared… Private wealthy interests and the common good are not identical; they actually contradict each other… In reality, public goods, services, and programs are not commodities.  They are not ‘consumer goods’ or ‘costs.’  They cannot be reduced to mere budgetary issues. This is a capital-centered way of viewing things. They are basic social human responsibilities that must be provided in a way that ensures the well-being of society and the economy. Approaching social responsibility as a business, contract, or commodity enriches wealthy private interests and lowers the quantity and quality of services for the majority. It also increases corruption and impunity.”

The late political theorist Benjamin Barber provides the clearest definition of the distinction between public and private purposes and the central flaw of neoliberal theory: “Privatization is a kind of reverse social contract: it dissolves the bonds that tie us together into free communities and democratic republics. It puts us back in the state of nature where we possess a natural right to get whatever we can on our own, but at the same time lose any real ability to secure that to which we have a right. Private choices rest on individual power….  Public choices rest on civic rights and common responsibilities, and presume equal rights for all. Public liberty is what the power of common endeavor establishes, and hence presupposes that we have constituted ourselves as public citizens by opting into the social contract. With privatization, we are seduced back into… an environment in which the strong dominate the weak… the very dilemma which the original social contract was intended to address.” (Consumed, pp. 143-144)


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