Schooling in Disaster Capitalism

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #6 in June 2008]


Around the world, disaster is providing the means for business to accumulate profit. From the Asian tsunami of 2005 that allowed corporations to seize coveted shoreline properties for resort development to the multi-billion dollar no-bid reconstruction contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan, from the privatization of public schooling following Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf Coast to the ways that No Child Left Behind sets public school up to be dismantled and made into investment opportunities — a grotesque pattern is emerging in which business is capitalizing on disaster. Naomi Klein has written of,

… the rise of a predatory form of disaster capitalism that uses the desperation and fear created by catastrophe to engage in radical social and economic engineering. And on this front, the reconstruction industry works so quickly and efficiently that the privatizations and land grabs are usually locked in before the local population knows what hit them.[2]

Despite the fact that attempts to privatize and commercialize public schools proceed at a startling pace [3], privatization increasingly appears in a new form that Klein calls “disaster capitalism” and that David Harvey terms “accumulation by dispossession”. This article details how in education the political right is capitalizing on disaster from Chicago’s Renaissance 2010 to the federal No Child Left Behind act, from educational rebuilding in the Gulf Coast of the U.S. to education profiteering in Iraq. The new predatory form of educational privatization aims to dismantle and then commodify particular public schools. This conservative movement threatens the development of public schools as necessary places that foster engaged critical citizenship. At the same time it undermines the public and democratic purposes of public education, it amasses vast profits for few, and even furthers U.S. foreign policy agendas.

Privatizing public schools does not simply threaten to skim public tax money to provide rich investors with profit. Public schools differ from privately-controlled schools in that they harbor a distinct potential for public deliberation and oversight that privately owned and controlled educational institutions limit. Privately-controlled institutions are captured by private interests. For example, freedom of speech is protected on the public space of a town common but is privately regulated in a shopping mall. In a public school learning and knowledge can be engaged in relation to pressing public problems in ways that can be limited within privatized schools. When a for-profit corporation runs schools, it will share ideological commitments to corporate globalization that frame public problems in ways compatible with ever expanding corporate profit despite the risks to people. Public problems like the weakening of the public sphere resulting from the corporate takeover of knowledge and schooling is not likely to be taught by corporations such as The Edison Schools. At stake in the struggle for public education is the value of critical and public education as a foundation for an engaged citizenry and a substantive democracy.

Capitalizing on Disaster in Education

Despite the range of obvious failures of multiple public school privatization initiatives, the privatization advocates have hardly given up. In fact, the privatizers have become far more strategic. The new educational privatization might be termed “back door privatization” [4] or maybe “smash and grab” privatization. A number of privatization schemes are being initiated through a process involving the dismantling of public schools followed by the opening of for-profit, charter, and deregulated public schools. These enterprises typically despise teachers unions, are hostile to local democratic governance and oversight, and have an unquenchable thirst for “experiments”, especially with the private sector. [5] These initiatives are informed by right wing think tanks and business organizations. Four examples that typify back door privatization are 1) No Child Left Behind, 2) Chicago’s Renaissance 2010 project, and 3) educational rebuilding in Iraq, and 4) educational rebuilding in New Orleans.

No Child Left Behind

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) sets schools up for failure by making impossible demands for continual improvement. When schools have not met Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), they are subject to punitive action by the federal government, including the potential loss of formerly guaranteed federal funding and requirements for tutoring from a vast array of for-profit Special Educational Service providers. A number of authors have described how NCLB is a boon for the testing and tutoring companies while it doesn’t provide financial resources for the test score increases it demands. [6] Sending billions of dollars of support the way of the charter school movement, NCLB pushes schools that do not meet AYP to restructure in ways that encourage privatization, discourage unions, and avoid local regulations on crucial matters. One study has found that by 2013 nearly all of the public schools in the Great Lakes region of the U.S. will be declared failed public schools and subject to such reforms. [7] Clearly, NCLB is designed to accomplish the implementation of privatization and deregulation in ways that open action could not.

A study of the Great Lakes region of the U.S. by educational policy researchers found that 85% – 95% of schools in that region would be declared “failed” by NCLB AYP measures by 2014. [8] These implications are national. Under NCLB, “The entire country faces tremendous failure rates, even under a conservative estimate with several forgiving assumptions.” [9] Under NCLB, in order for Illinois, for example, to get much needed federal Title I funds, the school must demonstrate “adequate yearly progress”, AYP.Each year Illinois has to get higher and higher standardized test scores in reading and math to make AYP.Illinois schools, and specifically Illinois schools already receiving the least funding and already serving the poorest students, are being threatened with: 1) losing federal funds; 2) having to use scarce resources for under-regulated and often unproven (SESs) supplemental educational services (private tutoring) such as Newton, a spin-off company of the much criticized for profit Edison Schools; or 3) being punished, reorganized, or closed and reopened as a “choice” school (these include for-profit or non profit charter schools that do not have the same level of public oversight and accountability, that often do not have teachers unions, and that often have to struggle for philanthropic grants to operate).Many defenders of public education view remediation options 2 and 3 under NCLB as having been designed to undermine those public schools that have been underserved in the first place in order to justify privatization schemes. [10]Public schools need help, investment, and public commitment.

Additionally, to think beyond efficacy to the underlying assumptions about “achievement” it is necessary to raise theoretical concerns.Theoretically, at the very least, the enforcement-oriented assumptions of NCLB fail to consider the limitations of defining “achievement” through high stakes tests, fail to question what knowledge and whose knowledge constitute legitimate or official curricula that students are expected to master, fail to interrogate the problematic assumptions of learning modeled on digestion or commodity acquisition (as opposed to dialogic, constructivist or other approaches to learning), and such compartmentalized versions of knowledge and learning fail to comprehend how they relate to the broader social and political realities informing knowledge-making both in schools and in society generally.

Renaissance 2010

In Chicago, Renaissance 2010, essentially written by the Commercial Club of Chicago, is being implemented by Chicago Public Schools, a district with more than 85% of students who are poor and non-white. It will close 100 public schools and then reopen them as for-profit and non-profit charter schools, contract schools, magnet schools, and bypass important district regulations. The right-wing Heartland Institution hailed the plan, “Competition and (public private) Partnerships are Key to Chicago Renaissance Plan” while the President of the Chicago Teacher’s Union described it as a plan to dismantle public education. [11] These closings are targeting neighborhoods that are being gentrified and taken over by richer and whiter people who are buying up newly developed condos and townhomes. Critics of the plan view it as “urban cleansing” that principally kicks out local residents. [12]

Like NCLB, Renaissance 2010 targets schools that have “failed” to meet Chicago accountability standards defined through high stakes tests. By closing and reopening schools, Renaissance 2010 allows the newly privatized schools to circumvent NCLB AYP progress requirements, that makes the list of Chicago’s “need improvement” schools shorter. This allows the city to claim improvement by simply redefining terms.

NCLB and Renaissance 2010 share a number of features including not only a high pressure model, but also reliance on standardized testing as the ultimate measure of learning, threats to teacher job security and teachers’ unions, and a push for experimentation with unproven models including privatization and charter schools, as well as a series of business assumptions and guiding language. For example, speaking of Renaissance 2010 Mayor Daley stated, “this model will generate competition and allow for innovation. It will bring in outside partners who want to get into the business of education.” [13]

Beyond its similarities to NCLB, Renaissance 2010 is being hailed as a national model in its own right across the political spectrum. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is the most heavily endowed philanthropy in history, worth about $80 billion, with projects in health and education. Its focus on school reform is guided by the neoliberal Democratic Leadership Council’s Progressive Policy Institute. Though it offers no substance, argument, or evidence for why Renaissance 2010 should be replicated, the economically unmatched Gates Foundation praises Renaissance 2010 as a “roadmap” for other cities to follow.

Both NCLB and Renaissance 2010 involve two stages of capitalizing on disaster. The first stage involves the historical underfunding and disinvestment in public schooling that has resulted in disastrous public school conditions. For those communities where these schools are located, it is the public and private sectors that have failed them. Although the corporate sector is usually represented not only in mass media but also much conservative and liberal educational policy literature as coming to rescue the incompetent public sector from itself, as Dorothy Shipps points out in her bookSchool Reform, Corporate Style: Chicago 1880-2000, the corporate sector in Chicago and around the nation has long been deeply involved in school reform, agenda setting, and planning in conjunction with other civic planning. As she asks, “if corporate power was instrumental in creating the urban public schools and has had a strong hand in their reform for more than a century, then why have those schools failed urban children so badly?” [14]

Hurricane Katrina

Likewise, following the natural disaster of Hurricane Katrina in the U.S. Gulf Coast, a for-profit educational contractor from Alaska, named Akima, won a no-bid contract to build temporary portable classrooms in the Gulf Coast. But for-profit education’s big haul in the Big Easy was in theU.S. Department of Education imposing the largest ever school voucher experiment for the region and nation. Right wing think tanks had prepared papers advocating such an approach describing public school privatization as a “silver lining” and a “golden opportunity”. [15]

Six months after Hurricane Katrina, the destroyed New Orleans public schools sit slime-coated in mold, debris, and human feces, partially flooded and littered with such detritus as a two-ton air conditioner that had been on the roof and the carcasses of dead dogs.

All 124 New Orleans Public Schools were damaged in some way and only 20 have reopened with more than 10,000 students registered. There were 62,227 students enrolled in NOPS before the storm. [16]

The devastation nearly defies description.

… Katrina roared in, severely damaging about a quarter of the schools: Roofs caved in. Fierce winds blew out walls and hurled desks through windows. Floodwaters drowned about 300 buses. Computers, furniture and books were buried in mud. Dead dogs and rotting food littered hallways. [17]

Yet days after the disaster The Washington Times quoted longstanding advocate of school vouchers Clint Bolick of the Alliance for School Choice. Bolick used the tragedy to propose wide scale privatization of the New Orleans public schools in the form of a massive voucher scheme. He said, “If there could be a silver lining to this tragedy, it would be that children who previously had few prospects for a high-quality education, now would have expanded options. Even with the children scattered to the winds, that prospect can now be a reality — if the parents are given power over their children’s education funds.” [18] Calling for the privatization of public schools, Bolick’s metaphor of the silver lining would be repeated over and over in the popular press immediately after the storm.Karla Dial in the Heartland News wrote, “emergency vouchers could be the silver lining in the storm clouds that brought Hurricane Katrina to the Gulf Coast on August 29.” [19] Reuters quoted Louisiana State Superintendent of Education Cecil Picard as saying, “We think this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I call it the silver lining in the storm cloud.” [20] Jack Kemp, who served in the Reagan administration, a long time proponent of business approaches to urban poverty, took poetic license but stayed with the theme of precious metal, “…with the effort to rebuild after Katrina just getting underway, the Right sees, in the words of Jack Kemp, a “golden opportunity” to use a portion of the billions of federal reconstruction funds to implement a voucher experiment that, until now, it has been unable to get through Congress.” [21]

Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans typifies the new form of educational privatization. The disaster has been used to enrich a predominantly White tiny business and political elite while achieving educational privatization goals that the right has been unable to achieve before: 1) implement the largest ever experiment in school vouchers; 2) allow for enormous profits in education rebuilding by contracting firms with political connections; 3) allow the replacement of a system of universal public education with a charter school network designed to participate in the dispossession of poor and African American residents from their communities. Such documents as those by the Urban Institute andHeritage Foundation discuss strategies to make the temporary voucher scheme permanent and even how to take advantage of future disasters.

The Heritage Foundation has been lobbying for vouchers for decades and published a report immediately after the hurricane calling for vouchers, as did the Urban Institute. [22] Support for vouchers comes largely from the neoliberal ideological belief that applying business ideals to the necessary bureaucratic public sector guarantees efficiencies. Critics of vouchers have contended that 1) encouraging parents to “shop” for schools will take scarce federal resources away from those public schools most in need of them — schools that have historically been underfunded by having resource allocations pegged to local property taxes; [23] 2) vouchers have traditionally been used to maintain or worsen racial segregation in the face of desegregation policies [24] — a particularly relevant legacy to the racial dispossession going on in New Orleans; 3) vouchers undermine universal public schooling by redefining a public good as a private commodity and stand to exacerbate already existing inequalities in funding; 4) vouchers undermine the public democratic purposes of public schooling by treating citizens as consumers; 5) vouchers undermine the constitutional separation of church and state.

Not only was the voucher agenda being pushed unsuccessfully for years before the storm, but also until Katrina the only federally funded voucher scheme was implemented by the U.S. Congress in the District of Columbia.

The DC experiment has been “marked by a failure to achieve legislatively determined priorities, an inability to evaluate the program in the manner required by Congress, and efforts by administrators to obscure information that might reflect poorly on the program.” [25]

The Bush administration, so slow to provide federal emergency aid to residents, was nonetheless quick to respond to extensive media criticism by following the privatization proposals of such right-wing think tanks. The administration proposed $1.9 billion in aid to K-12 students with $488 million designated for school vouchers. The editors of Rethinking Schools accurately wrote, “This smells like a back-door approach to get public funding for private schools and would essentially create the first national school voucher plan.” [26]

The Bush administration has long aimed to expand vouchers. In 2002 vouchers were removed from the No Child Left Behind bill at the last moment as part of an effort to secure bipartisan support. [27] Not only do the Katrina federal vouchers cover far beyond the Gulf Coast region, but they take advantage of the crisis to promote the idea of vouchers and privatization generally. For example, while select counties and parishes in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Florida are included in the Emergency Impact Aid, the entire state of Texas is included in the voucher scheme. While emergency funds do not permit public school rebuilding, they nonetheless give funding to schools in 49 states.

What is crucial to recognize here is that disasters are being taken advantage of and produced to set the stage for educational privatization. Whether public schools are being systematically underfunded, as were the New Orleans Public Schools before Katrina and then declared “failed” (as NCLB is designed to do nationwide), or whether a storm blows them to smithereens does not matter to the privatizers — though the aftermath of Katrina indicates the right has found just what can be accomplished through sudden massive destruction.

Neoliberalism and the Uses of Disaster
in Public Schooling

Contemporary initiatives to privatize public schools through the use of disaster can only be understood in relation to neoliberal ideology that presently dominates politics. [28] As David Harvey elucidates, neoliberalism, also described as “neoclassical economics” or “market fundamentalism,” brings together economic, political, and cultural policy doctrine. Neoliberalism, which originates with Frederic Von Hayek, Milton Friedman, and the “Chicago boys” at the University of Chicago in the 1950’s, expresses individual and social ideals through market ideals. Within this view individual and social values and aspirations can best be reached through the unfettered market. In its ideal forms (as opposed to how it is practically implemented) neoliberalism demands privatization of public goods and services, removal of regulation on trade, loosening of capital and labor controls by the state, and the allowance of foreign direct investment. For neoliberalism, public control over public resources should be taken from the “necessarily bureaucratic” state and placed with the “necessarily efficient” private sector. The implosion of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall were used by neoliberals to declare that there could be no alternative to global capitalism — Thatcher famously called this the TINA thesis, There Is No Alternative to the market. Within the logic of capitalist triumphalism, the only thing to do would be to put into effect the dictates of the market and spread the market to places previously inaccessible.

The neoliberal assault on teacher education participates in how the right is capitalizing on disaster by producing forms of teacher education that restrict from the curriculum matters central to the making of a democratic culture. For teacher educators, engaged citizens and activists the most crucial matter at stake in debates over privatization and school reform generally is the possibilities for public schooling to expand a democratic ethos and foster democratic practices and social relations with regard to politics, culture, and economy. What is being done for profit and ideology in New Orleans and Iraq, in Chicago and throughout the U.S. with NCLB and the assault on teacher education does just the opposite by political dispossession, economic pillage, and cultural symbolic violence. It is incumbent upon teacher educators us to develop pedagogical and material strategies to expand democratic struggles for the public to take back schools, resources, and cultural power as part of a broader democratic alternative to the anti-democratic neoliberal approaches that capitalize on disaster and imperil the public. ♦

This is an excerpt from Kenneth J. Saltman, “Schooling in Disaster Capitalism: How the Political Right is Using Disaster to Privatize Public Schooling” Teacher Education Quarterly Spring 2007, pp. 131-156.These issues are taken up at greater length in Saltman’s books Capitalizing on Disaster: Taking and Breaking Public Schools (Paradigm Publishers, 2007) and in the edited collection Schooling and the Politics of Disaster (Routledge, 2007).

1. This article draws on my forthcoming book Capitalizing on Disaster: Breaking and Taking Public Schools Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2007.

2. Naomi Klein, “The Rise of Disaster Capitalism” The Nation May 2005.

3. For the most recent update on the state of educational privatization see the research provided by the Educational Policy Studies Laboratory at Arizona State University available at <>

4. The editors of Rethinking Schools describe the federal voucher scheme after hurricane Katrina as “back door privatization” “Katrina’s Lesson’s”, Rethinking Schools Fall 2005, p. 4-5.

5. David Hursh offers an important discussion of how neoliberal educational policies destroy democratic public educational ideals in “Undermining Democratic Education in the USA: the consequences of global capitalism and neo-liberal policies for education policies at the local, state, and federal levels” Policy Futures in Education V2n3&4, pp. 607-620.

6. For an excellent collection of criticisms of No Child Left Behind see Deborah Meier and George Wood (eds.) Many Children Left Behind Boston: Beacon, 2004. In relation to what Henry Giroux has called the “war on youth” being waged in the U.S. see his important chapter on NCLB in Henry A. Giroux, Abandoned Generation New York: Palgrave, 2003. See also the collection of writings on NCLB on the website.

7. See Edward W. Wiley, William J. Mathis, David R. Garcia, “The Impact of Adequate Yearly Progress Requirement of the Federal “No Child Left Behind” Act on Schools in the Great Lakes Region” Education Policy Studies Laboratory September 2005, available at <>.

8. Edward Wiley, William Mathis, David Garcia, “The Impact of the Adequate Yearly Progress Requirement of the Federal “No Child Left Behind” Act on Schools in the Great Lakes Region” Educational Policy Studies Laboratory Septmeber 2005, available at page 3 of “Executive Summary”.

9. Edward Wiley, William Mathis, David Garcia, “The Impact of the Adequate Yearly Progress Requirement of the Federal “No Child Left Behind” Act on Schools in the Great Lakes Region” Educational Policy Studies Laboratory Septmeber 2005, available at page 3 of “Executive Summary”.

10. See for example the contributors in Deborah Meier and George Wood (eds.) Many Children Left Behind, Boston: Beacon, 2004. Also see for example the writing of Stan Karp and Gerald Bracey on NCLB. A number of excellent resources on privatization and commercialism implications of NCLB can be found at the site of the Educational Policy Studies Laboratory at

11. For an important scholarly analysis see Pauline Lipman, High Stakes Education Routledge 2004.

12. Activist groups include: Parents United for Responsible Education, Teachers for Social Justice, Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, among others.

13. Deb Moore, “A New Approach in Chicago” School Planning and Management Jul 2004, p. 8.

14. Dorothy Shipps, School Reform, Corporate Style: Chicago 1880-2000 Lawrence: The University of Kansas Press, p. x.

15. For example, Clint Bolick of the Alliance for School Choice described privatization as the “silver lining” of the cloud that was hurricane Katrina. His op-ed or quote was then carried by countless publications including the neocon The National Review and The Heartland Institute and The Washington Times, USA Today, etc. The quote was picked up and repeated by others advocating the same.

16. April Capchino, “More than 100 N.O. Schools Still Closed” New Orleans City Business, 2/27/06.

17. Sharon Cohen, “New Orleans’ Troubled Schools Get Overhaul” Associated Press, March 4, 2006 YahooNews <>

18. Clint Bolick, “Katrina’s Displaced Students” The Washington Times, 9/15/05.

19. Karla Dial, “Emergency School Vouchers Likely for Katrina Victims” Heartland Institute School Reform News November 2005 available at <>

20. Sharon Cohen, “New Orleans’ Troubled Schools Get Overhaul” Associated Press, March 4, 2006 YahooNews <>

21. People for the American Way, “Hurricane Katrina: A “Golden Opportunity” for the Right-Wing to Undermine Public Education” 11/14/05, available at <>

22. People for the American Way, “Hurricane Katrina: A “Golden Opportunity” for the Right-Wing to Undermine Public Education” 11/14/05 available at

23. Linda Baker makes this important point about the embedded funding implications of “choice” in the context of how No Child Left Behind allows students to choose any school, “All for One, None for All” In These Times, October 24, 2005.

24. For an excellent discussion of the history of voucher debates see Jeffrey Henig, Rethinking School Choice Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994.

25. People for the American Way, “Hurricane Katrina: A “Golden Opportunity” for the Right-Wing to Undermine Public Education” 11/14/05 available at

26. The Editors, “Katrina’s Lessons”, Rethinking Schools, Fall 2005, p. 5.

27. George Wood, “Introduction” Many Children Left Behind edited by Deborah Meier and George Wood Boston: Beacon, 2004, p. ix.

28. Henry Giroux’s The Terror of Neoliberalism Boulder: Paradigm Press, 2004 makes a crucial analysis of the cultural pedagogy of neoliberalism. For discussion of neoliberal pedagogy in relation to school curriculum, film, and literary corporate cultural production see also Robin Truth Goodman and Kenneth J. Saltman, Strange Love, Or How We Learn to Stop Worrying and Love the Market Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002. An excellent mapping and analysis of these conservatisms and others can be found in Michael Apple’s Educating the Right Way New York: Routledge, 2001.

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