Dissertation Defense — Nicholas J. Eastman
“Lost Ground: Neoliberalism, charter schools and the end of desegregation in St. Louis, Missouri.”
by: Nicholas J. Eastman
During the final decades of the twentieth century, U.S. urban education policy experienced a sea change in its approach to equity. Mid-century Keynesian liberalism and its programs for expanding access to public education resources through desegregation and more equitable funding gave way to neoliberal reforms focused on improving outcomes through deregulation, accountability regimes, and market discipline. Charter schools are the vanguard of neoliberal education reform. While much of the research on charters aims at either substantiating or critiquing their success claims relative to traditional public schools, this dissertation examines the role of charter schools within the larger processes of urbanization. I focus on St. Louis, Missouri. where, in 1998, a single piece of education reform legislation (Senate Bill 781) legalized charter schools and set an end for the largest and longest-running school desegregation program in U.S. history. Rather than legalize charters statewide, SB 781 restricted them to St. Louis and Kansas City, the only two cities to have operated court-enforced desegregation programs. Combining critical policy analysis and economic geography, I link both desegregation and charter schools to urban neoliberalization, arguing that radicalized processes of accumulation structured (and continue lo structure) uneven development in such a way to make educational equity-based reforms necessary and their failures Inevitable. Here too, St. Louis has an important story to tell. With deindustrialization and suburbanization resulting in a 63 percent decline in population in just over 60 years, St. Louis, like many other Rust Belt cities, has wholly embraced neoliberalism’s entrepreneurial ethos. Through public-private partnerships and a portfolio of tax incentives, St. Louis has sacrificed public education in its efforts to attract capital back to the city. Rather than mitigating these issues, the neoliberal restructuring of public education in St. Louis has embraced same market logics that contributed to educational divestment and school segregation. I argue for a more expansive approach to critical policy analysis in education, one that addresses the limitations of reform within the existing political economy and relocates educational issues and their solutions within a larger struggle for racial and economic justice.