Date of Degree

6-2022

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Ph.D.

Program

Psychology

Advisor

Cindi Katz

Committee Members

Michelle Fine

Akira Drake Rodriguez

Susan Saegert

Richard Ocejo

Subject Categories

Geography

Keywords

austerity; governance; neoliberalism; Newark; hegemony

Abstract

Following the Great Recession, a two-pronged policy agenda of charter school creation and public school austerity was implemented in many impoverished, multiracial urban school districts in the U.S. The reforms have yet to meet durably effective resistance. The three articles that comprise this dissertation address questions about how school reforms, austerity, and privatization have been made governable, specifically in relation to the: preservation of local Black political machine power, creation of a labor market for charter school teachers, ongoing contestation attempts by public educators in inert unions. These questions correspond to theoretical debates about contemporary forms of racism and the reproduction of neoliberal hegemony, the contradictions of state work, the constraints and possibilities for outward-facing, antiracist unionism.

Using in-person and online ethnographic methods, the research spans a period of intensified school reform in Newark, N.J., from 2008 to the present. Archival data, event observation (n=33), and interviews with parents, students, teachers and public officials (n=59) were used to analyze how restrictions on the local Black political machine’s autonomy affected the political calculus over school reforms. Interviews with charter school (n=15) and public school educators (n=27) provided insight into how educators in one or the other sector made sense of the competing discourses over charter school growth. Two years of participant observation and focus groups (N=2) with teacher unionists (n=16) addressed the potential of labor organizing to protect and enhance institutions of the public good.

Those who opposed school reforms succeeded in popularizing a critique of the deepened race and class inequalities the policies engendered. Yet, their oppositional claims were weighed on the ground by subjects making a realist calculus about which battles to pick. Newark residents and workers evaluated which political, financial, and social penalties were worth risking as they strove to make lives work in and against a geography of abandonment and extraction, organized not least by a racial state. The austere politics of school reform and privatization survived largely by attrition and domination, rather than strong consensus. The study points to the contradictions of a conjuncture delimited by both weak hegemony and weak counter-hegemony. This study also contributes to geographical research on austerity by drawing attention not just to class but race-based ideological and material struggles over the future of disinvested places.

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