Policy in a Garbage Can and Other Treasures of Our Republic

We as a society must divest ourselves of the illusion that policymaking is a rational endeavor. As we move to create a better world, as we seek social justice and as we look to the future for our children, we must realize the truth about policymaking. Policy is not made for us, the people. Rather, policymaking at all levels of government is a process which is meant to maintain the status quo and benefit the already powerful and wealthy [1].

In a perfect world, policymakers would listen to their constituents, understand problems in society as well as look where preventative measures could help. They then would make policy, and would heed the input of their constituents and the public in the process. The above is policymaking in a rational framework and how policymaking would look in a rational world. But this is not an accurate description for most policymaking in the United States. A more accurate depiction of policymaking may be the “garbage can theory [2].” Instead of policies created as rational responses to pressing problems, the garbage can theory holds that policy ideas are metaphorically stored in a giant container (along with whatever various material) waiting for the right time to be utilized. Politicians and their lobbyists have ideas and projects they want to put into action, and then wait for problems to arise (or create them) and then present their “solutions.” One telling example of this is educational policy in the United States. Since the 1980s, the so-called educational “reformers” have bombarded the general public with the notion that public education is in a state of crisis. The solution, we are told, is privatization and standardized tests. The real story is that educational companies such as Pearson and McGraw-Hill had been lobbying congress for years to implement educational policies that would be profitable for them [3]. Advocates of charter schools and school vouchers have been in Congress’s ear for the last half of the twentieth century. An incestuous relationship between educational profiteers and government developed (see Arne Duncan). Once the public was convinced of a crisis, the educational profiteers swooped in to the “rescue” and have been in the process of dismantling public education ever since. Their crowning moment of course was the passage of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2002. No teachers were consulted in the drafting of NCLB. It was written mainly by textbook companies and businessmen who know nothing of education – and then was subsequently hailed as groundbreaking educational reform. In addition, many states have enacted legislation that funnels tax money to private schools, virtual schools, charter schools and for-profit schools. The privatization of education along with the marginalization of teachers is not an accident: it has been ruthlessly pursued. Teachers have been shut out of the policy arena because teachers are public servants and put the children first, whereas the lobbyists and profiteers put profit first [4].

As an educator, for many years I have heard fellow teachers and even students comment “if the government knows that standardized tests are not working, why not fix them?” Or others comment “don’t these policymakers realize what they are doing? We need to show them!” We are mistaken in thinking that policymakers are ignorant. This notion of “if only we show the policymakers” assumes that policymakers believe they are acting in the best interest of their constituents when in reality they are acting in the best interests of their corporate lobbyists. We must realize this when we confront policymakers. Policymakers cannot simply be educated to the situation. They must be ruthlessly exposed as profiteers, cronies and crooks. The policymakers are only once facet of a complex equation. We must look to the corporations, the lobbyists, organizations such as ALEC and the Heritage Institute because it is these entities that are major players in policy formation. Policy is not shaped by public interest. This is not the exception but the rule and we must understand it as the normal state of affairs for many policies at the federal, state and even local level. We must show that bad policy is not a result of ignorance, but of deliberate calculation. Once we as educational activists realize this, we can more accurately fight the wholesale and purposeful destruction of our public education system.


1. Gildersleeve, R. (2013). Policy, reconfigured: Critical policy studies and the (false) benefice of subjects. The Journal of Critical Theory and Praxis, 2, 1-8.

2. Leslie, D. & Berdahl (2008). The politics of restructuring higher education in Virginia: A case study. The Review of Higher Education, 31, 309-328.

3. Janesick, V. (2007). Reflections on the violence of high-stakes testing and the soothing nature of critical pedagogy. In Critical pedagogy: Where are we now?Edited by Peter McLaren and Joe Kincheloe. New York, NY: Peter Lang.

4. Leistyna, P. (2007) Neo-liberal non-sense. In Critical pedagogy: Where are we now? Edited by Peter McLaren and Joe Kincheloe. New York, NY: Peter Lang.