Robert Asen is a University of Wisconsin rhetorician who studies political discourse. In School Choice and the Betrayal of Democracy, published in 2021, Asen traces the pivot in public values and political thinking that led from philosopher John Dewey’s definition of progressive public education as the necessary institution for forming our democracy to the adoption in Asen’s home state of Wisconsin of America’s first school voucher program in Milwaukee, followed by Scott Walker’s successful promotion of the statewide expansion of marketplace school choice.
Asen presents four chapter-long “case studies” of individuals and situations that trace the transformation. The first of these profiles explores John Dewey’s thinking about democracy: “Individual and collective represent for Dewey two dimensions of the same vitality of human relationships. Individuals do not grow and mature in isolation, nor do collectives dissolve individuality.” “Individuals may practice democracy as a way of life by building relationships with others. When these relationships bring individuals together in collectives, they enable the creation of community. Community thus represents the embodied practice of organizing public relationships democratically.” “Like democracy, education unfolds through relationships. Dewey criticized traditional pedagogical practices because they fail to build relationships in the classroom.”
Asen acknowledges one absence in Dewey’s thinking about community; he imagined community perhaps as a small New England town. Dewey did not fully grasp what Asen describes as “counterpublics,”—a society stratified by race and inequality of power: “Dewey and (W.E.B.) Du Bois lived in New York City at the same time, but they did not appear to participate in the same local community… Dewey underscored the importance of face-to-face community ‘without acknowledging any black face or community.'”
In contrast to Dewey, Milton and Rose Friedman “anticipated and influenced a wider neoliberal perspective that has treated markets not as a demarcated realm of society but as a general framework that can be applied to any activity.” “Taken together the Friedmans’ commitments to individuals, freedom, and market-inspired relationships outline a model of publicity and a policy agenda… Freedom orients this public as an ultimate value that elevates individual choice above all while obscuring structured advantages and disadvantages afforded to differently situated people in diverse and unequal societies… (T)his model treats these relationships as free of coercion and the uneven influence of power. In this way, differences between parties to a relationship do not matter in terms of shaping the dynamics of their relationship.”
The book’s third chapter becomes an exploration of the very familiar discourse of Betsy DeVos, but getting there, Asen traces 60 years of public thinking about education beginning with the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1965 under President Lyndon Johnson—through the 1982 Reagan era publication of A Nation at Risk, which shifted “the focus of education discourse from education as a means of social and political equalization to education as a means to economic prosperity”—to President George H.W. Bush’s 1989 Charlottesville Education Summit (chaired by Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton) which stressed the need for “an educated workforce… in an increasingly competitive world economy” and launched the idea of national education goals—through the passage, in 2001, of No Child Left Behind, which mandated holding schools accountable according to their capacity to raise aggregate standardized test scores every year.
From my point of view, as someone who has paid attention to public education through this entire history, Asen’s judgment about the pivotal role of No Child Left Behind in setting up the discourse for the subsequent growth of school privatization may be the most significant observation in this book: “In a bipartisan manner, accountability and standards functioned analogously to the roles of central banks and other regulatory market institutions in establishing common measures of educational value and exchange. Various actors, from state education officers to individual families, could participate in educational markets confident that they could exchange with others through commensurable means. Testing and test scores served as market valuations and currency. Individual schools, local districts, and states could market themselves to individual and institutional investors as sound opportunities. Test scores also provided market actors with the information they needed to make comparative choices among various education providers.” (p. 81)
Asen moves from this national history and his profile of DeVos to the operation of the discourse of privatization in his home state, Wisconsin. In the early 1990s, state assembly member and Black activist Polly Williams did not follow the Friedmans’ individualist script. Williams was disillusioned with the slow pace of desegregation in Milwaukee: “In her advocacy of vouchers, Polly Williams balanced individual and community concerns. As a policy tool, vouchers permitted individual Milwaukee parents to choose a private school… Yet Williams supported vouchers to help her community.” Ultimately, however, voucher supporters in Wisconsin adopted the Friedmans’ argument: “Against democratic visions, market-based publics offer alternative alignment of means and ends, foregrounding individual choice as the means for realizing… freedom. Nevertheless, as they supported the statewide expansion of vouchers, the Republican-majority members of the Joint Finance Committee associated various ends with vouchers—improved educational outcomes for all students, cost savings, new incentives for public school accountability—that when amplified, ultimately appeared as corollary benefits of choice.”
Finally, Asen profiles widespread public school advocacy across Wisconsin today, advocacy in the spirit of John Dewey, but explicitly recognizing the racial and ethnic diversity that dominates a state where the voters in homogeneous rural communities must somehow accommodate the needs of concentrations of Black and Brown students in Milwaukee and Madison and the residents of those cities must negotiate racism in the state capitol. Asen conducted focus groups of educators and public school advocates about they ways they are finding to lift up the needs of a student population divided by race, ethnicity, and economic inequality: “The partners in this dialogue bring distinct perspectives that offer new insights through their interaction. In his writings, Dewey underscored the value of everyday action as a mode of critical praxis that can turn coordinated individual action into a powerful collective force. Our interviewees explicated the texture and diversity of everyday action through their practices of community-building, unpacking connections among community, local identity, and difference… (O)ur interviewees explicated the dynamics of race and racism (and other potential sources of unity and division) in the actual processes of community-building. They shared Dewey’s commitment to community but recognized tensions, struggles, and frustrations that accompany community engagement.”
In the end, Asen sums up precisely why the Friedman-DeVos discourse is wrong for a democratic society: “By constructing education as a discrete package that individuals may receive separately and variously, dissociation redirects education away from potentially mediating the individual and the collective in the cultivation of democratic publics and toward a role of preparing individuals to pursue their self-interests in market publics.”
Asen affirms the overall vision of John Dewey as the way to move forward: “A democratic education may support students in living their lives productively in coordination with others, pursuing individual interests while recognizing how relationships shape these interests and build life-enriching collective affiliations… A democratic education may foster recognition of the varied consequences of human action, which Dewey understood as the basis of public formation. Individuals do not choose only for themselves; their choices carry consequences for others who must live with the potentially ameliorative and baneful effects of these choices… A democratic education may illuminate the transformative power of publics for the people who participate in them.”