Charter School Real Estate Schemes and the Theft of Agency: Andre Agassi and the Celebrity Branding of Schools
IN HIS AUTOBIOGRAPHY, tennis star Andre Agassi revealed that his authoritarian father had stolen his childhood, his agency, and his education by forcing him to train to become a world champion athlete. Putting him on a strict disciplinary training regimen, Agassi’s father made him hit balls instead of going to school and later sent him away to a tennis academy that allowed him to effectively drop out of school by ninth grade. Agassi explains that his father terrorized him and his siblings with explosive anger while taking away any choice that he had to play a game he claims to have hated.
Not only did Agassi’s father demand total obedience to authority but he also taught Agassi that thinking and questioning are to be avoided. Choice and control taken away, Agassi details how he expressed control through self-fashioning and regularly remaking his appearance and through alcohol and drug use. Andre’s father, Mike, was a frustrated former champion boxer who didn’t have the chance to compete at tennis, and so he attempted to make his children into world tennis champions, imposing his will, his dreams, and his desires on his children. As well, Mike Agassi saw his children as a potential big payout with prize money and endorsements. From the youngest age, Andre was inserted not only into his father’s dreams but also into his father’s fantasy of transforming children into money. As Andre’s older siblings failed to win trophies and prize money, the pressure mounted on the last hope. While Agassi reached the top of the game, winning prizes and numerous corporate endorsements, he details how the undermining of his agency resulted in feelings of anxiety, depression, alienation, and confusion about his own desires. In a somewhat predictable pattern for confessional autobiographies by celebrities, we learn that after a failed marriage and relationships, a stint with crystal meth, abuse of alcohol and toupees, and a turbulent career, Agassi found salvation. Salvation for Agassi came in finding love with another tennis star and in privatizing public schools—continuing the family tradition of making children into profit engines. Agassi was going to open a chain of charter schools, but following a string of scandals, he instead started a charter school facilities real estate investment company.
This chapter shows how, in the absence of evidence and argument, faith in markets and a cult of personality play an outsized role in promoting the continued expansion of the charter movement. There are two primary motivations for charter school development that I explore here. One is the profit motive. The other is ideology. Neoliberal ideology has not only justified privatization, deregulation, and union busting but also driven the expansion of corporate culture, managerialism, and a revival of a positivist approach to knowledge. I am showing here how the profiteering of charter school real estate, bond, and other financial schemes has very much to do with an unexplored dimension of the ideology of corporate culture that is applied to school reform: the cult of personality in charter school promotion and the replacement of learning for social agency with mystified forms of consumerist agency produced through the association of schools with celebrities.
In pointing out the role of culture, symbols, and spectacle in school reform, I am highlighting the extent to which the swindles of innovative educational finance depend on cultural ideologies that not only work in conjunction with profit motives but at times create the cultural conditions within which extraction of wealth from the public becomes intelligible as a course of action. The first section discusses the varieties of profit seeking in the charter movement, with particular attention to charter school real estate and municipal bond issuance. The second section explains how celebrities, often with no education themselves, become authorized to act as school reformers.
On one level, the simple explanation is that when education is turned into a market, anyone can become a player. However, celebrities in particular, without knowledge and experience of education, have been sought out to partner with other charter investors, as if being an athlete, rapper, or musician gives insight into curriculum, pedagogy, or administration. I contend that there is more at play than simply the attachment of a recognizable brand, such as Agassi, to a school in a market atmosphere. I explain that the legacy of positivist rationality that structures so much of contemporary educational thinking, especially standardized testing, estranges facts from the history and context of their making and meaning. This contemporary positivist alienation of fact contributes to antitheoretical and anti-intellectual culture that seeks explanations for social phenomena and grounding for educational policy not through recourse to evidence and argument but through reference to image, the body, and even the logic of conspiracy. I contend that educational profiteering needs to reckon with the contemporary epistemological crisis of truth and lies, fact and theory, and a growing turn to “superagents” and the cult of personality around them to anchor market-based projects that are otherwise unsupportable.
Forty-five percent of all charter enrollments are in educational management organizations, or EMOs. As of the 2014–15 academic year, for-profit EMOs “ran more than 900 charter or district schools across the U.S. and approximately 300 nonprofit EMOs operated more than 2000 charter schools.” In some states, the majority of charter schools are for-profit companies. For-profits predominate in Michigan (85 percent), Florida, Arizona, and Ohio.
As Baker and Miron explain, “most nonprofit EMOs look, act, and have management agreements similar to for-profit EMOs.” Common to both for-profits and nonprofits is that, on the whole, they have higher administrative costs (such as pay to owner/operators) and lower teacher pay than traditional public schools. Nonprofits are most common in Texas, Illinois, New York, and California. While for-profits can legally extract money as profit and nonprofit charters must show that expenses go back into operations, the reality is that both for-profits and nonprofits create wealth for owners/operators in the same way, namely, by building expenses for administration into the justified expenditures. Sometimes these charter administrative salaries are enormous, and sometimes cronies and family members receive high salaries as administrators to keep the money flowing in. One high-profile “nonprofit” charter EMO in Chicago, named UNO, was discovered to be paying extraordinarily high administrative salaries to founder Juan Rangel and his family members (whose role in administration was unclear). The EMO was found to be contracting operations to itself.
Because of the many possibilities for profit, not just hedge fund titans but movie theater companies, retired tennis stars, and other celebrities have rushed to become major investors in charter school facilities. Charter school real estate companies often acquire school buildings cheaply from public districts. The real estate investors have a relationship with or serve on the boards of charter school management companies. Investors then lease the property to the charter school board at a large profit. The board therefore is practically leasing its own property to itself in the form of the charter school, for which they receive public money. As in the case of Andre Agassi and his partner Bryan Turner, the real estate investor acquires cheap property, leases it to himself as the charter founder, and extracts profit by taking a significant portion of the public tax money directed to fund the charter school for overhead.
Charter school real estate investors in the United States like Turner and Agassi claim that only with the expansion of the profit motive in U.S. schooling can schools be improved. Investors and charter proponents claim that drawing private capital and profit motive into public schooling is mandatory. According to Turner, “if you want to treat a problem, then philanthropy is fine. But if you want to cure, really cure, you’ve got to harness market forces to create sustainable solutions that are scalable.” Turner and Agassi run two companies that invest in charter school real estate. They buy cheap property and lease it to the charter schools at high interest rates. Turner and Agassi’s profit is coming from public wealth. Contrary to the picture Turner paints of an unfettered free market doing good, the profit-making enterprises Turner and Agassi run rely on government regulations, laws, and tax incentives that create the conditions for their businesses.
As educational finance scholar Bruce Baker has detailed, the biggest loser in this charter school real estate leasing scenario is the public. The public pays first to build the school building, then gives it away and keeps paying for it to the private real estate investor who now owns it. As Baker explains it, the public pays twice while losing the school. The charter school real estate investors make money by charging rents that often far exceed 20 percent. They have also profited by getting New Market Tax Credits that from 2000 to 2014 publicly subsidized private investors to develop school facilities for charters. These tax credits allowed investors to double their money in seven years.
Large profits in charter school real estate also include the issuance of charter municipal bonds. From 1998 to 2017, more than one thousand tax-exempt charter municipal bonds have been issued, representing at least $15.5 billion in debt. Charter schools are risky because they can so easily fail or face financial difficulties; this makes charter municipal bond investments in turn risky. Yet, in states with some of the highest concentration of for-profit charter schools, these bonds are insured by public funds. Baker calls this scenario “subprime chartering,” warning of a massive charter municipal bond bubble that could burst with dire impact for the rest of the economy. With the public holding the bag, the bursting of this education finance bubble would result in the public bailing out the private sector just as it did in the subprime mortgage crash of 2008. While the $1.3 trillion student loan debt bubble is now well known to the public, the charter municipal debt bubble that could rival it remains largely unknown.
Agassi has received media attention and criticism as a major investor in charter school facilities development. Some criticism has highlighted how he has profited massively from these investments; yet, in terms of test-based student achievement, the charters he has opened have fared poorly, among the worst for Las Vegas–area public schools. It is difficult to justify the draining of public money from the public school system under the auspices of private-sector “impact investing” alleged to be necessary to keep the charter movement expanding.
Since the late 1990s, the charter movement has been hamstrung by the fact that facilities are not typically provided by school districts. Under the Clinton administration, New Market Tax Credits were launched to incentivize private investors to develop school facilities. The charter movement was premised on a business language and logic that called for greater market competition paired with consumer choice, market accountability, and concentrated leadership power by deregulating control by communities, teachers, and their unions. “Just like in markets,” the competition and choice were supposed to put pressure on all schools to improve quality as they competed for students and tax dollars. While there is no evidence to suggest that this vision came to fruition, this did not slow the expansion of the charter movement. Even as empirical evidence for test score improvement was lacking and a number of problems with chartering became empirically established (including pushouts, worsened racial segregation, suppressed pay and security for teachers as administrative costs ballooned), venture philanthropists poured billions of dollars into expanding the charter movement. Not only did educational researchers point to the lack of evidence of success on the terms that charter boosters had predicted but even the business press recognized just how lackluster charter performance had been. By 2013, the business press was citing educational research studies of the failures to beat public schools in terms of test scores and efficient spending despite charters’ capacity to cherry-pick students. Nonetheless, as Forbes pointed out, the business press recognized just how lucrative charter schooling is for investors like Agassi, in large part due to public subsidies in the form of New Market Tax Credits.
Ideological Motivations for Charter Expansion
The charter school movement has continued to expand in the United States. While charter schools compose only approximately 6 percent of U.S. public schools, the charter school movement has worked feverishly to change state laws and lift caps on the number of charters. Superrich individuals and corporate philanthropies, such as the Walton Family Foundation (Walmart money), the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (Microsoft money), and the J. P. Morgan Chase Foundation, have financially backed the charter school movement.
Most of the people who are involved in the charter school movement are motivated less by personal financial profit than by ideological convictions. These ideological convictions hold that public schools are “failing,” that the “discipline of markets” needs to be injected into the hopelessly bureaucratic public sector, that unions only protect lazy or incompetent teachers who are the cause of educational failure, that parents and students need to be seen as consumers given an educational “choice,” and that the competition that they do as consumers will necessarily promote the magic of the market, with its efficiency, quality, and accountability. This ideological view has been steadily and systematically promoted in the last thirty years to the point that it is now largely common sense. Ideology stands in for the abundant empirical evidence for profound problems with chartering. These problems include draining money from public schools; worsening racial segregation; pushing out special education students, English language learners, and students with discipline problems; inflating administrative pay while reducing teacher pay; failing to improve traditional measures of test-based achievement and emphasizing such positivist forms of assessment to guide pedagogy and curriculum rather than socially engaged and critical forms of education; tending to embrace repressive pedagogical approaches that aim more for control of bodies than intellectual stimulation; and busting unions, thereby making teaching precarious and underpaid work.
The first promise of charter schooling, when it was promoted by Albert Shanker and the American Federation of Teachers, was that it would provide innovative, alternative, and independent school models that would foster teacher autonomy. By the 1990s, chartering was hijacked by corporate reformers and venture philanthropists focused on test-based accountability and the possibilities of experimentation to discover the most efficacious models that would raise test scores. These corporate reformers revived the mid-twentieth-century promises of industrial efficiency, scientific management, and a transmission model of schooling. In this vision, schools promoting higher scores would be replicated and scaled up, and schools that did not would be “allowed to fail.” Other corporate reformers, such as Andy Smarick, made it clear that charter expansion should be promoted in the short run to close traditional public schools and set the stage for declaring charters a failed experiment that would allow for opening a system of private, for-profit schooling nationwide.
By about 2010, a number of evaluations had made it clear that the promise of raising test scores through chartering was a false promise as charters schools appeared to score about the same or worse on tests. So proponents like the Gates Foundation changed the criteria for success yet again. Instead of promising raised test scores, now charter expansion would facilitate “college and career readiness.” For proponents of charter expansion, one virtue of this new benchmark for charters would be that, unlike test scores, university enrollment is not measured in a centralized way by the Department of Education. Consequently, it is extremely difficult to measure whether charter schooling as a reform collectively promotes “college and career readiness” more than, say, putting the forgone public resources into traditional public schools. Abundantly clear is that, absent evidence, faith in markets or market fundamentalism is what anchors privatization schemes, such as charters, in place of evidence for social benefit.
Charter School Investors, the Cult of Personality, and the Theft of Agency
In Open, Agassi repeats the standard tropes about the virtue of charter schools: they are deregulated and hence free of the constraints of public bureaucracy by being under the control of administrators. Agassi, scathingly critical of his own subjection to authoritarian control by his father and, later, his tennis academy coach, nonetheless promotes school reforms for their capacity to give unchecked control to a leader. Agassi repeatedly addresses what he calls the “contradiction” of a school dropout, such as him, becoming a school reform figure, suggesting that by confronting and embracing one’s contradictions, one can live a more honest and better life. Agassi does not, however, address how this particular contradiction has implications for students attending a school designed by a person with no education in or knowledge of educational theory, curriculum studies, or pedagogy. Nor does Agassi explain his charter schools’ school-to-work educational model. By mandating that kids need to work hard in school to succeed in the workforce, Agassi contradicts his own financial success, which resulted from his abandonment of school in favor of professional sports and celebrity endorsement. Is not Agassi’s “do as I say, not as I do” perspective as much an authoritarian presumption as his de-democratizing efforts of facilitating charter schools that have privatized control?
One might interpret Agassi’s educational activities as a classic case of psychological projection. He was subject to authoritarian control by parents and school. He dropped out of school, rejecting that control. He turned to a form of school reform that concentrated the control of the school, allowing economic elites to usurp the collective decision of the public. The school model that Agassi embraced tends toward repressive, if not authoritarian, pedagogies. As a child, Agassi was treated as an object, a money machine, and as an adult, he treats children as objects, money machines for his real estate business.
Such an interpretation aligns with Paulo Freire and Erich Fromm’s social psychological description of sadism, namely, the transformation of the other into an object of control. Such objectification and instrumentalization of the other turn the other into a dead thing, robbing one’s victim of his subjectivity and humanity. The oppressed, Freire observes, suffer from “adhesion.” That is, they learn to see freedom only as the power to oppress others, treat others as objects of control. In such a view, objectified and instrumentalized as a child, Agassi in turn grows up to objectify and instrumentalize children (respectively, through disciplinary repressive pedagogies and curriculum and through draining the public school system of resources to make real estate profits). Alternatively, one might interpret Agassi’s educational activities as an extension of his expressed hatred of school and a form of deep cynicism about schooling. Profiting from school reform would not only further enrich him but would allow him to overcome bad press generated by his drug use, failed marriage, and regular jousting with sports reporters. This interpretation fits with his self-description as a Vegas kid reared on hustling as well as his shrewd activities as a businessman.
While there may be something to these interpretations, I want to focus on how a professional athlete and celebrity with no formal education can be taken seriously as an educational reformer and what that means for student agency. How does the attachment of Agassi’s image to charter school development projects lend credibility and legitimacy rather than undermining credibility and legitimacy? What does this suggest about the dominant justification for charter expansion of “college and career readiness”? The answers to these questions lie in decades of ideological shifts that involve the meanings of school reform, the alienation of knowledge from evidence and argument, and the meanings of celebrity.
As a tennis star, Agassi endorsed Canon cameras. The advertising slogan featuring Agassi was “Image is everything.” In Open, Agassi expresses frustration for how the media criticized him for an advertising campaign not of his own making. The press criticized him for his flamboyance and allegedly excessive attention to appearance as well as his transgressive aesthetic. Celebrity image is a kind of currency—symbolic currency that, like money, grants credibility in various domains.
As public schooling has become remade since the 1980s in the service of the private sector and itself as business, businesspeople are increasingly legitimated as government actors and, more particularly, as education reformers. There was a steady stream of rhetoric of the need for a businessperson to run inefficient public-sector bureaucracy to apply the discipline, competitiveness, and quantitative analysis of the realm of money. Upon his release from prison in the late 1990s, junk bond financier and felonious fraudster Michael Milken was redeemed by the media after he was barred from trading as he turned to educational privatization and building an education conglomerate.
This logic has been transformed. Having money proves the capacity of a person to manage a public enterprise, even without business expertise. (Trump’s secretary of education, Betsy Devos, is perhaps the clearest example of this.) What has developed out of this and reality television and social media is the increasing legitimation of imagery as capacity. Since the 1990s, reality stars who are famous for being famous are able to forge themselves into brands, translating image recognition into commercial endorsement potential (a good example of this is Paris Hilton). These brands have financial value, endorsement value. Notoriety functions as symbolic wealth. The renown conveys legitimacy and credibility. An economy increasingly organized around click-through profits, advertising revenue measured by eyeballs on screens, and the commercialization of data amplifies notoriety as value. Agassi is hardly alone as a celebrity endorser of a public school that is positioned as a corporate product.
The rapper Pitbull, the musician John Legend, and the music producer Diddy, among others, have also gotten in on the game of charters. Pitbull (Armando Christian Perez) completed high school and partners with a large for-profit charter management company, Academica, as an investor in the Sports Leadership and Management charter school in Miami. Despite his lack of advanced formal education and his urban outlaw image, his financial success as a popular rapper and commercial product endorser make him a legitimate figure for the school reform business.
Unlike Agassi and Pitbull, John Legend received an Ivy League university education and worked for a major corporate consulting firm, Boston Consulting Group, before becoming a celebrity. Since becoming a celebrity, he has been active in several corporate school reform organizations dedicated to privatization and union busting, including Stand for Children and Teach for America. Legend, who is African American, in 2016 denounced the NAACP’s call for a moratorium on charter schools. The NAACP’s moratorium was based in empirical studies, including findings of their own research task force, that showed chartering as exacerbating rather than reducing racial segregation in public schools. Legend’s advocacy of charters and privatization is not based on exhaustive research and a commitment against racial segregation and the erosion of public schooling the way that the NAACP position is. Rather, Legend puts his faith in a market-based consumer choice model for public school enrollments. Legend, despite having only an undergraduate degree, was, because of his fame, invited to serve on the board of trustees for the University of Pennsylvania Law School’s Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice. The Quattrone Center makes compiling data and conducting empirical analysis for criminal justice reform central to its work. Yet, as Jose Luis Vilson observes, education does not merit the same treatment from Legend. The university promoted this celebrity appointment on its website.
Rapper, music producer, and alcoholic beverage entrepreneur Sean “Diddy” Combs became famous as much through his music as for his notorious association with the East Coast–West Coast gangster rap feud that resulted in the deaths of Tupac Shakur and Notorious BIG in the 1990s. Combs, in 2016, started a Harlem charter school that features a website with the rap star surrounded by adoring children. Combs’s school was designed by a pro-privatization ideologue who has been accused of embellishing the record of his Hartford charter school and who describes himself as a “brand.” The point not to be missed about the relatively recent rise of celebrity associations and endorsements of educational privatization is that, in the absence of evidence for the social and educational value of charter expansion, celebrity branding has taken on a significant symbolic role.
Celebrity endorsements and investments for educational privatization on the surface seem preposterous. After all, as Vilson points out, why would educational quality be enhanced by affiliation with athletes and musicians who themselves either have little education or lack any background, expertise, or familiarity in educational policy, planning, research, or curriculum theory? The simple answer is that it is not enhanced.
Yet it is done for several reasons. In a cultural and political context in which the public is increasingly framed as the private sector and schools are positioned not as public institutions but as businesses, a commercial logic deepens. Like the marketing of any commodity, association with a celebrity endorsement sells products. Charter schools must compete for students and, with funding dependent on enrollments, market their brand to prospective students and families. The dirty underside of what proponents celebrate as market-style “competition” is that charters spend a portion of funds that would otherwise pay for educational resources on advertising, marketing, and promotions to lure prospective students and parents. This is one high cost of John Legend’s beloved “consumer choice.” Celebrity attachments that otherwise should have no real connection to the school should be thought of as yet another cost of the logic of school competition. Schools are burdened not just with the material drain of the cost of promotion but with the symbolic drain of being associated with meanings that would not be acceptable by professional and ruling-class communities. Would gangster rappers and uneducated tennis players, whose successes are defined by the body and not the mind, be readily embraced as symbols by, for example, schools in the rich, predominantly white suburbs of major cities?
There is a seemingly contradictory connection of figures who have made a lot of money through exceptional industries like athletics and entertainment to schools saturated with ideologies about school as the path to jobs and security for working-class and poor students of color. What is not at all contradictory, however, is the long racist legacy of ascribing to black and brown youths the promise of corporeal forms of opportunity that affirm a racialized mind–body split that attributes intellect to whiteness and to nonwhites attributes of bodily capacity.
The early millennial celebrity image from sports and entertainment as symbolic currency represents a departure from the late 1990s trend of installing generals and military leaders in urban schools as a symbol of necessary discipline. While the militarization of schools has steadily expanded and come to intersect with the charter movement, the commercialization of schools through branding and celebrity represents a few key ideological shifts.
Agassi is used as a symbol of bootstrap hardscrabble grit, competition, and the financial success of someone who made it without education. This image fosters the central metaphor of charter promoters that charters inject private sector–style competition into the bloated bureaucratic public sector.
The charter movement in rhetoric fosters the development of independent and alternative school models. Yet, in reality, school development is highly limited by school founders’ access to capital. For this reason, large corporate foundations, charter management organizations, and educational management organizations with a relatively homogenous ideological perspective emphasizing school-to-work and the ideologies of corporate culture have managed to expand. More socially progressive and academic models that make learning the basis for interpretation and social intervention, or that have deeply democratic connections to community, tend not to find capital.
At the American Educational Research Association conference of 2017, a group of scholars from the Paulo Freire Democratic Project, affiliated with Chapman University in Orange, California (many of whom worked with Paulo Freire himself), detailed their ten-year saga to secure funding for a charter school based in the liberatory pedagogy of Freire. Freire is widely considered to be among the most influential educational philosophers of the past century. The project aims to create the school in a predominantly working-class and poor Mexican American community in Santa Ana. Drawing on Freire’s thought, the school would give students the intellectual tools to analyze self, society, and claims to truth and link learning to socially just community transformation. The project would also be linked to already existing community support projects, including early childhood education and adult literacy. The scholars recounted how the rightist Walton Family Foundation (Walmart money), a foundation known for its promotion of privatization and authoritarian leadership models, offered to fund the project on the condition that it determine the leadership of the school. The project organizers rejected this proposal and continue to search for funding.
Contrast the case of the Freire Democracy Project’s long-standing inability to get charter funding to Democracy Prep, the charter outfit that bought Andre Agassi’s charter school in Las Vegas. After being plagued by poor test-based performance and accusations of mismanagement, Agassi offloaded management of his academy to Democracy Prep. A nonprofit charter management organization, Democracy Prep was founded by Seth Andrews. Democracy Prep bills itself as centrally defined by civic engagement. However, its version of civic engagement, celebrated by the right-wing AEI, appears to limit the conception of civic engagement to the formal political process; delinks it from the specificities of community context; and voids civic engagement of the structural forces, such as class, gender, and race, that produce political subjects and contexts. Central community activities for the charter students involve get-out-the-vote demonstrations and participation in lobbying for charter expansion. For a school that is serving predominantly African American students, the curriculum appears not only to evacuate study of African American culture, struggle, history, and theory but also to impose the study of the Korean language. This appears to be because the founder taught English in Korea. My point is not that there is no value in studying Korean. What is significant is not only that the subjectivities, histories, contexts, and cultures of students are not taken up in relation to the curriculum in Democracy Prep’s model but also that a seemingly arbitrary language and culture are imposed on students by the charter founder. A democratic pedagogy ideally would link learning to the process of interpreting and comprehending the social world students inhabit and interpreting the ways the self is formed by that social world.
Cults of personality allow the interests, whims, or quirks of the personality to be supported or to hold sway. The imposition of the interests or whims of the charter founder appears widespread. Andrews taught in Korea, so working-class African American U.S. students apparently have to learn Korean in high school. The rapper Pitbull likes sports, so he started a sports-themed charter. The music producers Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young (Dr. Dre), both of whom do not have university degrees, are financially successful in the music business, so they gave $70 million to the University of Southern California to start a music entrepreneurship academy that includes a high school program.
Pierre Bourdieu’s conception of cultural capital as a form of social and symbolic wealth that is unequally distributed provides two distinct insights into the phenomenon of celebrity image that is attached to privatized schools. In “The Logic of Capital,” Bourdieu explains the inverse relationship between the transmission of class status through monetary capital and cultural capital. For Bourdieu, cultural capital refers to socially valued knowledge, tastes, and dispositions and the means of acquiring them. Schools reproduce the class structure in part by unequally distributing cultural capital. Ruling- and professional-class students learn the language, codes, and tastes of power in the home, and the school largely rewards the cultural capital brought from home while adding to it. Working-class and poor students are punished in school for their knowledge, tastes, and dispositions. Grades and tests reward and punish students, making it seem as if the unequal distribution of cultural capital is based in merit, talent, and hard work rather than class origin.
In terms of Bourdieu’s explanation of cultural capital as a means for the maintenance of the class structure, the attachment of the symbols of nonacademic competition, such as athletes and pop stars, does not represent a break with the actual pedagogies, curriculum, or models that these schools foist on students. That is, these schools distribute what passes as professional- and ruling-class cultural capital as universally valuable, neutral, and objective while punishing working-class cultural capital. At the same time, the highly rigid, standardized, decontextualized, and test-heavy forms of teaching in most charters represent pedagogies of obedience antithetical to intellectual dispositions for questioning, dialogue, and dissent. The disposition for obedience to authority and the treatment of knowledge as a deliverable gift from “those who know” represent the production of docile subjects in preparation for the low-pay, low-skill segment of the economy or worse and the making of subjects without the intellectual tools for collective self-defense. Yet these anti-intellectual schools attach symbols of corporeal working-class success (athletes, musicians, celebrities) to the educational machinery of symbolic violence. These symbols of working-class success exchanged the symbolic capital of the body for monetary capital. These athletes, musicians, and celebrities succeeded in the market despite their lack of school success and stand as symbols not of academic excellence but of the promise of individual talent actualized in the market. Some of the celebrity personalities, such as Agassi, preach hard work as the route to success even as their own hard work was not expressed academically. For a generation witnessing unprecedented concentrations of wealth, precarity, and downward mobility for everyone but the superrich, the spectacular success embodied by these figures represents both a false promise of academic meritocratic mobility and a mystification of the means by which wealth is produced. These schools offer students no intellectual tools to theorize the difference between working-class knowledge and culture of the family, the community, and the body as distinct from the professional class–based knowledge and culture of the school that circulates in institutions of power. While many of these schools aim to get students into university, and many do, the vast majority of students who attended charters drop out of university. These students are largely unprepared to negotiate the intensified demands for professional-class cultural capital in universities that the schools do not give, nor are students prepared to approach knowledge as a means of social and political agency rather than a meaningless commodity to be consumed and exchanged.
Yet Bourdieu also explains that the function and significance of cultural capital declines as economic capital transmission becomes the more pronounced form for the reproduction of class. In the past three decades, as income inequality has reached new heights and wealth has become radically concentrated in the hands of a few, the heritability of class dominance has become more directly economic and less cultural. Upward mobility has drastically declined, and education as a means of upward mobility has also declined. Yet the ideology of educationally based meritocratic climbing is omnipresent. As cultural capital declines in its significance as an equalizing force, education and culture become less important as transmitters of class power.
In such a context, money itself takes a more pronounced symbolic value as legitimator that can translate into multiple social scenes. To have money confers legitimacy to make claims to knowledge. A president can be elected who has no experience in government but allegedly has a lot of money and a famous brand. A secretary of education can be appointed who has no experience in public schooling but is a billionaire intent on converting schools into businesses. An athlete or entertainer with no education can start schools. To have celebrity, to be a brand, confers legitimacy, because it represents a form of financially exchangeable symbolic power—a subjectified form of money. A president can be elected who has no experience in public service, and makes nothing, but licenses a brand image to be attached to various unrelated products: reality television programs, steaks, beauty contests, neckties, buildings, a for-profit university.
The attachment of seemingly incongruous figures like tennis stars and rappers to charter schools has another dimension related to both contemporary politics and corporate school reform—the replacement of theory and arguments with the false foundation of numbers and essentialized identity. Contemporary politics has been formed through an antipathy to theory that in part derives from the legacy of positivism in knowledge-making domains. As education and journalism embrace a postpolitical pseudo-objectivism, they deny framing assumptions, values, and ideologies. In education, the standards and standardized testing movements have been joined by efforts to remove social justice and theoretical subjects from teacher preparation programs. Objectivity and neutrality have been promoted under the guise of delivering ideological neutral “content,” as if truth claims do not come from particular people with class and cultural locations. The decline of the power of cultural capital and the inflated value of financial capital as the preserve of class coincide with a two-decades-long educational accountability movement in which teaching to tests has become the norm. Standardized testing not only decontextualizes knowledge, removing it from its social conditions of formation; it also equates knowledge with authority. What is on the test appears legitimate because it has been deemed of value by experts elsewhere with power. Those with the power to claim the authority of standardized knowledge are not subject to questioning, identification, or dialogue.
A number of fields are undergoing a contradictory relationship with empirical data. On one hand, the investors profit from charter schooling and justify the profit as a benefit to the education system. Evidence suggests that this is decidedly not the case. The claim to financial efficacy is grounded not in evidence of benefit to the schools or the students but rather in brand image and the regurgitation of market ideologies of competition, choice, privatization, and deregulation invoked by the celebrity images. Even as there is no evidence that would justify the privatizations, recourse to empiricism is invoked to justify reforms that function in the interest of profit yet erode certain quality. For example, the charter movement dumps the standardized test score as the arbiter of quality and a backlash grows against the standardization of curriculum. Nonetheless, heavy standardized testing remains, and the charter movement continues to expand. Similarly, teachers are subject to value-added measures in which their positions are made insecure and measured by students’ standardized test scores, or teachers are replaced with technology, such as personalized learning, that is falsely portrayed as objective, ideologically neutral, and universally valuable, even as it is misleadingly positioned as “personal” and “culturally responsive.” These examples reveal that positivist ideology continues in educational reform to deny the values, assumptions, and ideologies behind claims to truth. Positivism rejects the relationship between theory and practice, eliding the theoretical assumptions behind practices. On one hand, fact is celebrated, and on the other hand, it appears to be suspect, free of context, history, and origins in human thought. In such a context, fact appears grounded by assertion, more specifically, by the assertion of people and institutions with unquestionable authority. Fact has been positioned as an alien enemy that comes from nowhere.
In the age of the suspicious fact unmoored from argument, evidence, and history, conspiracy grows. Vaccine conspiracies, chemtrails in the sky, birther conspiracy, the revival of age-old racist conspiracies about foreigners and enemies within—conspiratorial thought presumes that agency is dominated by those with secret control over knowledge and hence secret action. Absent theory, concept, or argument to explain social and individual realities, the logic of conspiracy finds foundational explanations in the essence of groups of people. For conspiratorial thought, there are superagents who have a kind of magical capacity for understanding and action that is unique, exceptional, and beyond the usual rules of the game. Celebrity figures who attain top success in sports and entertainment typically do so outside of the meritocratic school ideology that promises that hard work in school results in economic success. Rather, such athletes and entertainers appear as exceptional products of talent or iron will. Attached to schools, the success of these celebrities is typically treated as magic and removed from the history and context that made it possible. Celebrities are alienated social facts. They appear as exceptionally powerful and capable, able to transcend the standard rules and formulas for economic rewards. As points of identification, celebrities represent to youth an impossible superagency that stands outside and against academic knowledge and its promise of economic inclusion.
As a symbol attached to charter schools, celebrity image functions to affirm a broad hostility to critical and public forms of teaching and learning that would examine the values, assumptions, ideologies, and material and symbolic interests that often undergird claims to truth. There are many scholars of critical pedagogy and critical media literacy who take hip-hop, sports, and other popular cultural forms seriously and make them the basis for learning that is meaningful so that learning may become critical and socially transformative. However, these celebrity symbols attached to charter schools are not there in conjunction with critical pedagogies. They are attached, rather, to schools with largely repressive pedagogies that emphasize learning that is decontextualized from social contexts and student subjectivities. In this sense, the celebrity figures attached to charters function to give a guise of relevancy even as the model of the school provides no means for learning to be a source of social agency.
In contrast to celebrity superagents held out to them as promise, students in celebrity-branded charter schools are largely positioned as nonagents or spectatorial agents who are being educated to think of knowledge as at best a kind of cash currency that does not provide self- and social-explanatory power and, at worst, is just an irrelevant imposition by those with authority. Is this not the entire implicit point of the standardized test? Knowledge is made elsewhere; knowledge has nothing to do with the world; knowledge provides no insights into the self; knowledge has nothing to do with the context; knowledge has nothing to do with agency other than as an alienated thing to acquire, display, exchange. In the absence of knowledge and learning as providers of meaning and agency, the celebrity superagent attached to the school offers a different promise of agency, agency that comes from the body itself. Yet the image of the celebrity superagent is a mystified promise. For working-class African American and Latino students in charters, the image or presence of an Agassi provides no inspiration or model for academic development or the possibilities of learning as a tool for self and social development. If anything, the image of the celebrity attached to the school affirms a bodily and identitarian explanation for why society is the way it is—the truth of racialized poverty and gross inequality is to be found not in the ways historical discourse makes material reality intelligible but rather in the alleged nature of the people in the schools and community. Hence the celebrity image functions as a compact racialized class-based lesson that locates the unequal distribution of life chances in the alleged nature of the student. Just as standardized testing offers an implicit lesson that inequality of opportunity and material resources are the result of a lack of hard work and talent of the student, so too the celebrity image in the school stands as the corporeal proof that financial success is possible and that if the student does not achieve it, only the lone student is to blame.