Liberal Incorporation and the Punitive Federal Education State

The following is an excerpt from Daniel S. Moak’s From the New Deal to the War on Schools: Race, Inequality, and the Rise of the Punitive Education State, which documents how a vision of education as a panacea for society’s flaws led the United States to turn away from redistributive economic policies and down the path to market-based reforms, No Child Left Behind, mass school closures, teacher layoffs, and other policies that plague the public education system to this day.

Since the 1960s, the belief that education holds the key to individual success, social mobility, and racial equality has driven the construction of an expansive and increasingly punitive federal education state committed to addressing broad social problems through the public education system. This faith in education that drives both increased federal funding and increased expectations is the hallmark of the liberal incorporationist education order. Established during the Great Society, this order is liberal in its commitment to extend to all the liberal democratic ideal of equality of opportunity through education, backed by a robust commitment of the federal government. The order is incorporationist in its goal of bringing all citizens, particularly racial minorities and other disadvantaged groups, into the broader existing economic and social structures. For racial minorities, incorporation implied integration and educational opportunity in order to ensure the ability to compete on equitable terms with their white counterparts. Incorporation requires the elimination of arbitrary barriers to success—like race—and adjusting individuals to succeed in the established societal structures. Importantly, incorporation suggests that the broader existing economic and social structure will remain intact. Although alternative visions of education that centered the need for worker solidarity, teacher activism, and reconstruction of the economic order had enjoyed popularity during the New Deal era, since the 1960s the commitment to liberal incorporation has been the lodestar of the dominant educational order.

The passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) in 1965 represented a critical juncture in the building of the federal education state and helped usher in this new educational order. The liberal incorporationist consensus that education was the most effective means of addressing the issue of unemployment and poverty created a powerful coalition in Congress to push for federal involvement in elementary and secondary education. The interpretation of poverty and unemployment as largely attributable to individual deficiencies in skill or culture drove the compensatory approach of ESEA, in which funds were targeted toward the disadvantaged poor. The focus on disadvantaged students through compensatory aid was a significant shift, as federal lawmakers had tried—and failed—to pass general education aid for all students since the late 1800s.

Federal policy makers built an education order in which faith in education as a solution to poverty, unemployment, and racial disparities led to the development of an increasingly punitive education state. Those on the left concerned with inequality, unemployment, and the status of racial minorities—but ultimately unwilling to fundamentally challenge the economic system—looked to education as the most effective way to solve these problems. By adopting an understanding of these problems as best addressed at the individual rather than the structural level, these actors turned to education as an alternative to more direct economic redistribution or federal intervention in the labor market.

In the years following 1965, this educational order justified an expansive federal commitment in the realm of education. It also led to demands that schools be held accountable for addressing poverty, unemployment, and racial inequality. These lofty expectations meant that funding was attached to increasingly harsh measures to ensure accountability. Teachers who fail to raise test scores face loss of pay and firing; students who fail to meet sufficient scores on standardized exit exams face denial of high school diplomas; and schools that fail to achieve testing benchmarks face transformation into a charter school, privatization, or closure.

The educational commitments established during the Great Society continue to drive education policies. The term punitive when describing education is most often associated with suspensions, expulsions, and the relationship between schools and the justice system—all of which are significant features of the current landscape. However, I also want to draw attention to the relationship of punitive governmentality that has increasingly targeted schools, teachers, and students. As the federal government has expanded its authority in the realm of education, it has embraced policies that seek to regulate actions within the education system through the threat of disciplinary action if actors fail to enact its normatively desired goals. The liberal incorporationist education order has not only changed policies but also shifted the ways in which policy makers and the public understand the purpose and problems of education. As policy makers increasingly embraced the idea that schools could solve myriad social problems, they also embraced punitive policies such as closing neighborhood schools, firing teachers, attacking tenure protections, and privatizing “low-performing” schools when these social problems continued. The punitive governmentality of the liberal incorporationist order is one where schools and teachers are given impossible tasks and then punished for failing to achieve them.

The reality is that schools could not—and cannot—counter the major drivers of poverty, unemployment, and inequality. Greater federal education funding could do little to address the effects of automation or deindustrialization. Demanding higher standards and more standardized tests does little to alter the reality of a labor market where wages and union power have been steadily hollowed out over the last fifty years. Although changes in the labor market are beyond the schools’ control, policy makers embraced education as a panacea for the deficiencies of the broader political economy. The resilience of the liberal incorporationist faith in education has positioned schools as both savior and scapegoat, facilitated the rise of punitive accountability policies, and pushed alternative redistributive political economic approaches into the background.

Daniel S. Moak is assistant professor of government at Connecticut College.