Consuming the public school

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In the course of the last 400 years, the tension between two competing visions of the purposes of education have shaped American public schools. From one perspective, we have seen schooling as a way to preserve and promote public aims, such as keeping the faith, shoring up the republic, or promoting economic growth. From the other perspective, we have seen schooling as a way to advance the interests of individual educational consumers in the pursuit of social access and social advantage. This paper explores the evolution of that tension across the history of American schools.
After tracing the emergence of this tension in the colonial period, I spend the first half of the paper examining the evolution of the public vision of education over American history through the rhetoric of the country’s most significant school reform movements. Here I argue that over this period the public mission of American schools shifted from keeping the faith to preserving the republic to stimulating the economy to promoting social opportunity. In the second half, I examine the impact that the private vision – expressed through consumer demand – had in reshaping the structure of the school system across the same period of time. Here I argue that educational consumers have long expressed a consistent preference – through their enrollment choices and their votes – for a school system that was less focused on producing benefits for the community as a whole than on providing selective benefits to the students who earned its diplomas. Families have been willing to acknowledge that the system should provide educational access for other people’s children, but only as long as it also has provided educational advantage for their own. This consumerism has been a factor in shaping schools from the beginning, but in the second half of the twentieth century it also came to reshape the public vision of education around the consumerist principle of equal individual opportunity.


Type of resource text
Date created [ca. 2010]


Author Labaree, David F.


Subject Education
Subject purposes
Subject philosophy of education
Subject history of education
Genre Article

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Related Publication Labaree, David F. (2011). Consuming the public school. Educational Theory,61: 4, 381-394.

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Preferred Citation
Labaree, David F. (2011). Consuming the public school. Educational Theory,61: 4, 381-394.


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