SB 4: Texas charter schools and the politics of competence
Doctor of Philosophy
The dissertation is a qualitative inquiry into the vexed state of public education reform in the contemporary United States. It focuses on the introduction of charter schools as reform instruments, the emergence of a widely-celebrated chain of college preparatory charters, and internal conflicts within the Texas charter school community that were enacted in 2007 with a proposed piece of charter school reform legislation, Senate Bill 4. Drawing on interviews with administrators, observations of schools and association meetings, analysis of media and policy documents and public testimony from the Texas legislature, it describes contemporary cultural anxieties about the competencies of present and future citizens. The dissertation is structured in the form of four observational essays. The method involved in the writing is to enter into dialogue with the cultural discourses preceding, produced by, or trailing along in the wake of the public debate over SB 4. It works to tease out the implications and interconnections gathered in the field, including representations produced for other, more straightforwardly informative purposes, in order to provoke new ways of thinking about them. The first essay is based on interview-based research I conducted with school administrators in San Antonio. It begins with an assessment of a similar study of public school reform conducted by anthropologists in North Carolina that is more straightforwardly informed by critical theory and an oppositional moral stance to neoliberalism and offers in the place of critique a more humble account of my own fieldwork in San Antonio that was not motivated by clear cut moral certainties. The second is based on media representations of charter schools, educational assessments, and the widely-celebrated and discussed KIPP network of schools and seeks to situate the debate over SB 4 within a broader national context of public debate on the problem of education reform. The third essay continues to probe the sources of KIPP's broad popular appeal through observations of daily activities of one of its middle school campuses. The final essay returns to the public testimony on SB 4 to problematize what appear to be simple solutions to immensely complicated problems.