Are you there Kevin? It's me, neoliberalism

In a recent blog Kevin Carey took on Claire Potter’s critique of Obama’s higher education proposal by chastising her for using the term neoliberalism, and calling her a college professor so out of touch with the real world that she isn’t invited to the policymaking tables where he hangs out.

Dear Kevin, as you know I like you very much—so pardon me if I take offense here.  As a fellow college professor who spends quite a bit of time in DC policy circles (including with you), I think your critique of Potter is off-base. It’s also incredibly unproductive, as you set up an “education reformer versus college professor” dichotomy that's decidedly unhelpful. You accuse Potter of thinking she’s better than the DC crew, but she said nothing of the sort—instead it’s really you who calls her the idiot, seemingly for using big words. 

At the heart of the problem with your critique, Kevin, is that you’ve really missed the meaning of neoliberalism.  Yes, I’m going to keep using the polysyllabic term, since like “stratification,” it has real meaning and is useful for describing a complex concept. 

No, neoliberalism isn’t like facism—as you point out—and no one I know ever claimed it was.  It’s not widely abhorred, primarily because the term itself challenges an ideology so dominant that people have a hard time recognizing its existence.   You reduce neoliberalism to just one of its pieces: an effort to remove market regulation in the pursuit of greater liberty. Since Obama seeks, in some regards, to regulate the action of markets, markets which you rightly note already operate in education, then his policies can’t be neoliberal.  Right?

Wrong.  Neoliberalism is staring you in the face, and in today's education policies it isn’t marked solely or even primarily by a lack of market regulation, but by the promotion of privatization, erosion of worker protections,  heavy reliance on standardized testing, and the rollback of broad community input on school decisions.  More informally, neoliberalism posits that solutions to problems such as opportunity gaps lie in competition among individuals rather than long-term planning and cooperation.  It serves the few who are “racing to the top,” rather than the many who could and should work together for a just and equal society.  Frankly, neoliberal policies take the easy way out and call it “efficient”, rather than doing what’s hard but ultimately long-lasting and ethical.

Unbelievably, without a shred of evidence that positive outcomes have been achieved with the first, President Obama has proposed yet another Race to the Top, one that will undoubtedly reward institutions for policies that promote slippery-slope private partnerships (e.g. between community colleges and business), high-stakes accountability, and top-down reforms of professorial work, all in the name of enhanced productivity.  I'm on the record as for for productivity improvements in higher education, but I would never want them to be agenda #1—first we have a long way to go toward establishing a much deeper commitment public education, we must agree on goals and metrics for both educational equity and quality, we have to develop an appropriate and socially-just financing structure, and then we can work on efficiency.  Working backwards is a surefire way to cut costs and lose what’s most valuable: talent. And it’s definitely the way to create and perpetuate a 1% in education that leaves most of us behind.

Kevin, we share a deep commitment to doing whatever it takes to improve students' education experiences.  But we disagree on what we think the path to that goal must entail.  In my view, the road must include the continuation and indeed the growth of public investments in public education—not routes around it.  It must also include enhanced respect and support for educators.  There is no evidence of such support in this proposal—the importance of adequately supporting the work of professors in order to help student is not mentioned, and yet the fingers of blame are pointed in their direction (most recently by Joe Biden) for rising costs of college attendance.   The winners of this race will likely be the private institutions, who depend far less on state support, and thus will look like winners.  The students and families equipped to benefit from choice—those with more access to information and who are accustomed to “shopping,” will reap the rewards. They're the voters, and they'll love it most of all. Others who love the idea of choosing, and believe the false hopes that discussions of choice perpetuate, will similarly fall in line. That’s the neoliberal model at work—purporting to convene a fair competition, exciting the individualistic imagination of the American Dream, without placing any particular value on the principles of collective public goods or fair labor practices.  It may get people revved up in an election year, but make no mistake about it--it isn’t a progressive vision in the least.