On September 13, Susan Santone, Adjunct Instructor at the University of Michigan and CEO of Creative Change, presented at the Friday Forum, a symposia series focusing on neoliberalism and public higher education. Ms. Santone’s presentation was titled “Getting Down to Business: How Neoliberalism is Eroding the Democratic Mission of K-12 Education.” She highlighted the importance of educating children and youth to design the futures they want. In contrast, public education has been reshaped to integrate students into an economic system that demands privatization of government functions and economic competitiveness. She noted the achievement gaps across ethno-racial and socioeconomic groups, and highlighted the importance of socioeconomic status (SES) as a significant factor related to the achievement gap; namely, poverty. Schools in poverty areas are less likely than their higher SES counterparts to have experienced teachers, access to advanced courses, and adequate resources. Further, they are more likely to have cultures of low expectations, narrow curricula, disproportionate discipline, and exposure to toxins.
How did we get to this level of inequality in public education? Santone noted the shift in emphasis from student learning to global competitiveness, beginning with the report A Nation at Risk (1983), and continued with No Child Left Behind (2001). In short, the reports emphasized economic competitiveness and preparing students for jobs in modern industry. The approaches employed to do this included standards and accountability (e.g., testing), private-public partnerships, school choice, and charter schools. In short, market-based reforms. Yearly school progress reports were embedded in a punishment framework that included severe sanctions for underperforming schools. Rather than investing in schools in poverty neighborhoods, they were punished for outcomes that were shaped by socioeconomic factors beyond their control. Today we have charter schools that, in most cases, do not perform as well as public schools.