Introduction: Schooling in a Time of Crisis and Austerity

  • Alexander J. Means
Part of the New Frontiers in Education, Culture, and Politics book series (NFECP)


As we drift further into the second decade of the twenty-first century, public schooling in the United States has become a focal point of anxiety and a signpost of sobering challenges. In the dominant media and among the financial and political elite, a corporate consensus has emerged that has declared public schooling to be a failed experiment—an antiquated social institution incapable of meeting the demands and assorted crises of the global era.2 The rhetoric of educational failure is most often invoked in relation to “urban education”—a not-so-subtle “race neutral” euphemism for public schools that serve primarily impoverished communities and mostly black and Latino youth. Dominant explanations for the perpetuation of “failure” in such schools—low test scores, dysfunctional environments, high dropout rates, and so on—have become increasingly predictable. Across a network of high-profile corporate reform advocates, right-wing think tanks, business groups, and corporate foundations the problem is said to be located in the inefficient and corrupt nature of the public sector itself and the supposed incompetence and greed of teachers and their unions. The future of the nation is said to depend on restructuring public school systems by subjecting them to commercial management and the private discipline of market forces. In order to save public education, it is argued, we must break-up the “public school monopoly” through the wholesale privatization of the educational commons.


Great Recession Latino Youth Human Security Public High School Youth Worker 
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  1. For further elaboration on this paradox see Christopher Newfield’s (2008) Unmaking the Public UniversityGoogle Scholar
  2. and Alex Means’s (2011) “Creativity as an Educational Problematic in the Biopolitical Economy” in Michael Peters and Ergin Bulut’s (eds) Cognitive Capitalism, Education, and Digital Labor. Here I argue that neoliberal systems of knowledge management and reform in secondary and higher education represent a distinct struggle over the global educational commons that opens up new challenges and possibilities for democratic resistance and development. For further analysis and the most comprehensive and acute examination of the failures of neoliberal schoolingGoogle Scholar
  3. see Kenneth J. Saltman’s (2012) The Failure of Corporate School Reform. Saltman systematically deconstructs how corporate reform in US secondary education has failed as a movement—functioning largely as a means for dismantling public schooling through privatization in the interest of short-term profits and long-term management of staggering inequalities and systemic contradictions.Google Scholar
  4. 7.
    Along with McNally, I understand the 2008 economic crisis as symptomatic of more general crisis tendencies in global capitalism. See also David Harvey’s (2010) The Enigma of Capital. In this book, Harvey locates the global economic crisis as indicative of the long-term structural barriers to continued economic expansion in the neoliberal era. He argues that while the extension of easy credit to consumers combined with semiotic manipulations in finance offered one avenue of continued capitalist growth in the 1990s and 2000s, the failure of deregulated finance capital in 2008 signals broader problems and limits for an accumulation paradigm beset by tensions between, on the one hand, finding new exploitable markets and opportunities for profitable investment, on the other hand, encroaching environmental depletion and resource scarcity.Google Scholar
  5. 9.
    Harper’s magazine reported that in 2007 there was $78 billion in venture capital invested in US education startups. In 2011, it was $452 billion (Harpers Index, 2012). For an analysis of the influence of educational corporations on US education policy see Lee Fang’s (2011) “How online learning companies bought America’s schools” published in The Nation,Google Scholar
  6. Saltman’s (2012) The Failure of Corporate School Reform, and in a global contextGoogle Scholar
  7. see Stephen Ball’s (2012) Global Education Inc: New Policy Networks and the Neoliberal Imaginary. Google Scholar

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© Alexander J. Means 2013

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  • Alexander J. Means

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