Carnegie Mellon University

Whose School: the National and Local Rhetoric of Education Reform

Author: Alexis Teagarden

Degree: Ph.D. in Rhetoric, Carnegie Mellon University, 2014

Rhetorically-grounded theories of public spheres often focus on diffusely circulating national argument or locally-situated public discourse. My dissertation project asks how the two levels interact. I argue they inherently collide in public policy debates, particularly those of education reform. And one of the most argumentative arenas in US public school reform is that of charter schools. Looking at national level discourse on charter schools, such as congressional hearings, budget justifications, and presidential remarks, I identify three enduring problem frames: recalcitrant bureaucracy, pernicious choice, and mutable community. By defining education in terms of these problems, I argue, charter schools appear a perfectly matched solution, since charter schools, by Washington definition, have more autonomy, create more choice, and foster more community engagement. I then compare these nationally defined problems with public argument from charters schools themselves. Specifically I look at City Academy of St. Paul, MN, the oldest US charter school and consider how the school has justified its charter for over twenty years. In doing so I trace how language patterns shift and blend between the national and local. My work contributes to public sphere and policy studies, by examining how participants negotiate the meanings of widely-circulated language for their uniquely situated contexts. I also see this project speaking to general concerns, for example, how we make the rhetorical tradition’s focus on audience meaningful in today’s media- saturated and digitally-archived world.