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The power to define : newspaper representations of educational choice in Edmonton and Calgary, 1990-2005 MacDonald, Terri-Lynn

Abstract

The purpose of this dissertation is to explore the use of discursive practice in the media public sphere as part of the educational policymaking process. The theory of definitional advantage suggests that powerful policy players have preferred access to media accounts of educational issues. Links between educational policy research and media research suggest that this definitional advantage translates into educational policy settlement. My research begins from the premise that this theory requires further clarification as recent evidence suggests definitional advantage and links to settlement are context specific and more complex than initially envisioned. This study focuses on policy player representations in newspaper accounts of educational choice issues in Edmonton and Calgary, Alberta from 1990 to 2005, with attention to who was saying what, when, and with what authority. A fifteen year timeline was chosen in order to illuminate periods of policy crisis and settlement, and contrasting case study sites were chosen due to key differences in school board resistance and local policy implementation. While newspaper accounts shifted overtime in response to local conditions, main narrative issue themes focused on charter approval challenges, administrative issues, and monitoring and support needs. Policy players also weighed in on the school choice debate by articulating claims related to equity, quality, and the need for diversity of educational opportunities. Charter school, school board, and government players were best able to articulate their positions in the public sphere as evidenced by measures of access, recognition, responsiveness, and intertextuality. Teachers’ union representations were surprisingly limited in both newspapers. Differences across local sites reveal strategies for effective counter-hegemonic work in the public sphere. By reinforcing their position of accommodation, connecting to local conditions, and limiting their assertions, the Edmonton board stopped the spread of charter schools early in the policymaking process. In contrast, the Calgary school board took an aggressive position of resistance that reinforced public perceptions of self-interest and mediocrity. Educational policy players should be encouraged that power is not a prerequisite for definitional advantage. Rather, connecting to local conditions, avoiding blame, and targeting assertions are effective policymaking strategies to be used in the public sphere.

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