- Capitalizing on Disaster: Taking and Breaking Public Schools
Capitalizing on Disaster: Taking and Breaking Public Schools is a much-needed critique of public school privatization. The book is essential reading for anyone concerned for the future of public education, the possibilities of sustaining a viable democracy, as well as for anyone interested in the intersections of culture and policy-making. Kenneth Saltman describes the ways for-profit companies view some of our culture's most embattled scenes of crisis and catastrophe – in post-invasion Iraq, Haiti, post-Katrina New Orleans, and inner city Chicago – as emerging markets. It examines the neoliberal and neoconservative attack on public education.
To make this argument, Kenneth Saltman focuses on the right-wing trend of taking advantage of disaster situations in order to commercialize public schools for profit. Thinkers such as David Harvey, Naomi Klein, Henry Giroux, Zygmunt Bauman, among others, contribute to the emerging critique of neoliberalism and neoconservatism as a political strategy of redistributing wealth upwards, of promoting the market as the only solution to social problems; that is, translating social issues into private concerns. Saltman labels the practice of rebuilding public schools after a disaster or crisis in a way that enables corporate neoliberal profiteers and neoconservative think tanks to benefit financially as "smash and grab". He uses this euphemism to describe the case studies in his book. The case studies illustrate how advocates for the neoliberal and neoconservative reorganization of schooling preserve the increased marginalization of the poor and the deeper entrenchment of inequalities by reducing the role of education to market functions; that is, produce U.S. workers who are globally competitive for the future. Social policies, however, serve only to justify the gutting of public schools rather than investing in them. Saltman's primary concern regarding schooling for profit is that it severely compromises the ability [End Page 64] of an educational system to foster critical democratic principles in its citizens. In the "smash and grab" atmosphere of commercial schooling, the focus of education is centered around a corporate structure of production and the possibility of profit rather than on developing a citizenry capable of engaging rational debate. The case studies presented in this book demonstrate how two political rationalities, neoliberalism and neoconservatism, converge on public schools. Together these rationalities work to undermine egalitarianism, self-governance, and meaning-making activities on which a democratic culture is built.
Saltman's first example of "taking and breaking public schools" is post-Katrina New Orleans. Prior to hurricane Katrina, New Orleans had some of the most neglected public schools in the country. Following Katrina, private companies used New Orleans schools as an opportunity for experimentation. Despite public outrage against privatization prior to the storm, school vouchers were issued to thousands of students. Typically, vouchers work to redistribute taxpayer money to private schools and charter schools in order to subsidize private enterprise. Though made palatable through the language of "choice", their ultimate effect is to take financing out of the coffers that could have been geared towards rebuilding schools, impoverishing the public system to the benefit of private contractors. The administration touted the voucher program as the "silver lining" in this terrible tragedy. The moneyed reference began the neoliberal campaign to couch the challenges of the New Orleans public schools in a system of corporate, moneymaking jargon. Saltman identifies this shift away from civic discourse as a method that conceals the unequal ways in which school administrators and public officials are distributing material resources. Privatizers tout unjustified efficiencies of the private sector and contrast that to the "failures" of the public sector. Once words such as "choice", "competition", "achievement" and "accountability" become commonplace in the community's vocabulary the ability of the community to challenge corporate programming is compromised (though there are plenty of examples—as Saltman indicates —of communities resisting). Vouchers redirect much-needed public funds from destroyed New Orleans schools. Those funds are distributed to privatized schools and charter schools. Such schools typically have been fashioned in accordance with a neoconservative agenda. The neoconservative agenda that promotes busting teachers' unions...