Contracts, Choice, and Customer Service: Marketization and Public Engagement in Education

Nov. 10, 2011

Source: Teachers College Record Volume 113 Number 11, 2011.

Purpose of Study

This article uses an examination of marketization in Philadelphia over a six-year period
(2001-2007) to explore its implications for public engagement—or the ability of individuals and groups to work with and influence the school district and hold officials accountable.

Research Design
This is a qualitative case study of school district change in Philadelphia, focusing on the implications for public engagement.

Data Collection and Analysis
Data included over 50 interviews with education administrators, civic and political elites, and representatives of grassroots and community groups. Data also included six years of participant observation at public meetings and in reform coalitions. Analysis followed a grounded theory approach designed to identify district policies and practices related to public participation and to document how these practices shaped the ability of individuals and groups to engage productively with the district.


The authors find that the marketization of education in Philadelphia had a major impact on the district’s institutional structure and practices for interacting with local stakeholders.
The data point to several changes that were particularly consequential in shaping the opportunities for engagement and the direction such engagement took. These are: a corporate governance structure, an emphasis on communication, widespread contracting out for services, an increase in school choice, and a focus on customer service.


These changes have resulted in channeling of public participation along individual lines at the expense of collective forms of action and, more broadly, undercutting of the understanding of education as a public good.
Given the continued influence of market models of education reform at the local and national levels, it will be important for policymakers to pay close attention to the ways by which marketization can limit engagement and to develop strategies, such as increased transparency and new vehicles for public input, to address this tendency.

Updated: Oct. 27, 2011