Greg Tanaka, Jackson Potter, Marjorie Faulstich Orellana, and Rosemary Henze holding Chicago Teacher's Union T-shirts. Photo courtesy Rosemary Henze

Why should critical scholars defend public schools against widespread closures sweeping the US? Some argue that public schools are simply better than the charter alternatives increasingly replacing them, as the latter are accused of skewing academic results through selective admission practices (eg, excluding the disabled). For such reasons, public systems are seen to operate in the best interests of communities instead of corporations; most notably, they do not bust unions, as do their charter counterparts. In taking up the defense of imperfect public systems, which are imperfect for more reasons than recent funding cuts alone, ethnographers are well-poised to weigh in. Nevertheless, we have perhaps the greatest to offer when we reframe the debate altogether.

Greg Tanaka, Jackson Potter, Marjorie Faulstich Orellana, and Rosemary Henze holding Chicago Teacher's Union T-shirts. Photo courtesy Rosemary Henze

Greg Tanaka, Jackson Potter, Marjorie Faulstich Orellana, and Rosemary Henze holding Chicago Teacher’s Union T-shirts. Photo courtesy Rosemary Henze

At the Council on Anthropology and Education (CAE) town hall forum held off-site from the American Anthropological Association meeting this past November, we heard from Jackson Potter of the Chicago Teachers’ Union, that some 50 recently closed public schools in his city have been replaced by quasi-private, non-unionized charter schools. Systemic reforms promoted by Mayor Rahm Emmanuel and the Commercial Club of Chicago are pushing a business model for managing education that is being replicated across the country. Advocates of the new schools point to improved test scores as proof that public systems simply do not have the drive to achieve or innovate in a competitive market. Meanwhile, critics of the charter school movement emphasize the limited scope of results-driven education that does not account for the diverse socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds of students. Paraphrasing educational scholar Arthur Costa, Potter explained that the ensuing model of academic success increasingly replaces that which is educationally significant but difficult to measure, with that which is educationally insignificant but measurable.

Greg Tanaka at his Presidential talk for the Council on Anthropology and Education. Photo courtesy of Rosemary Henze.

Greg Tanaka at his presidential talk for the Council on Anthropology and Education. Photo courtesy Rosemary Henze

In his address, outgoing CAE President Greg Tanaka framed concerns for the future of education in terms of the role of educators in defending democracy at micro, mid-level, and macro scales. For him, in this age of massive student debt and thinly veiled exclusion of the poor from labor market participation, we are closer than ever before to the breakdown of democracy. Hence, the stakes are high for reclaiming the social role of the teacher, who has been progressively reduced to a technician producing compliant workers and passive consumers, instead of active and critical citizens. Nevertheless, critics would point out that the nearly universal establishment of public schooling in North America and Europe over the past century is relatively unique, stirring important questions about whether charter systems are really as unusual and problematic as their critics would have us believe. As I learned while working in an under-funded public school in southern Chile throughout 2009, it is not the private management of education that makes charter schools so troubling, but rather that these institutions directly profit from limited public funds.

During my own panel at this year’s meetings, on “Rehabilitating Future Publics: Critical Anthropologies of Education in Emergencies,” my paper addressed an ongoing crisis in public education in Chile. Fellow panelists gave fascinating assessments of education in situations more appropriately deemed humanitarian crises, namely in Kenya (Epstein, Bartlett), Burma (Metro), and Pakistan (Chaudhry). Yet, observations from South America’s so-called “economic miracle” were not entirely out of place. This is in part because, as I argue, over the past 25 year’s crisis Chile’s educational sector has been effectively institutionalized as a means of dismantling political opposition to a contentious status quo. Crisis is produced locally when for-profit charter schools compete with public establishments for state funding allocated to each registered student. Far from generating the competitive efficiency proclaimed by charter school advocates, the state often ends up paying for two or more institutions where there would normally only be one. Meanwhile, diminished budgets lead to the abandonment of services in outlying areas that are deemed to either be not lucrative enough (for charter schools) or too costly to maintain (for public systems).

Chile was an early site for the neoliberal attack on public education, an attack ironically orchestrated by the “Chicago Boys,” a group of economists trained by Milton Friedman who during the Pinochet regime of 1973-1990 treated Chile as a laboratory for neoliberal reforms. Today, more than half of the country’s state-funded schools are charter. The exclusion of the poor from free access to quality education has prompted numerous student and teacher strikes over the past decade, culminating in 2011 when youth seized 17 major universities and more than 600 secondary schools for months on end. Curiously, Chile’s recent student strikes signal a push back against a prevailing political order into which younger generations have been schooled.

A far cry from elite private schools that do not depend at all on state funding, charter schools function as a political mechanism for restructuring “the public” (read here, the people) itself. In my own observations, the mounting pressure caused by increasing competition for limited state funds leads many administrators in remote parts of Chile to accept corporate sponsorships. In a country host to rapidly expanding extractive industries, such sponsorship becomes a form of compensation and implicit community consent to potentially devastating forestry, hydroelectric, and mining developments. In this fashion, the mere existence of charter schools undermines education as a human right. Moreover, research that masks the elaborate staging of charter school “success” by an economic and political elite is not only biased, but also fundamentally anti-democratic.

At their core, schools that function on a for-profit model have no vested interest in meaningful testing or transparent admission practices; they exist to benefit someone other than their students. Yet in spite of appearances, the struggle over public vs. charter schools does not play out between diametrically opposed social groups (i.e. the rich vs. the poor, white vs. Black), but on a cultural battleground between those who believe that the debate is merely about numbers (i.e. balanced budgets, test scores) and those who recognize that it is really about the future of democracy. Indeed, the socio-economic and racial profiles of those most harmed by such reforms is of pressing concern for researchers, but so too is the underlying struggle that charter schooling stirs, over what type of shared beliefs, values and practices—what we might call civic culture—may be cultivated through formal schooling.

Rita Henderson is anthropology lecturer and postdoctoral fellow in Community Health Sciences at the University of Calgary on the Voices against Violence Project.

Melissa Fellin is the Contributing Column Editor for the CAE section of Anthropology News. Contributions can be made to

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