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Saturday, January 3, 2009

What Ever Happened to the Schools in Post-Katrina New Orleans?


Editor: In our winter 2008 issue on "Schooling as if Democracy Matters," we published a review of Kenneth Saltman's book, Capitalizing on Disaster: Taking and Breaking Public Schools. In his post below, Saltman adds to the conversation that was started by Margaret Crocco in her update on "New Orleans and its Citizens: Three Years Later" by sharing his views on what is happening to the public school system in New Orleans since the Katrina tragedy. We invite our readers to read the review, Smashed, by Christopher Robbins and join in the conversation.

A Post by Kenneth Saltman
BEWARE TALES OF PROGRESS THAT ERASE THE FULL HISTORY OF DESTRUCTION AND DISPOSSESSION IN THE NEW ORLEANS' SCHOOLS

In my book Capitalizing on Disaster I detailed the vast experiment in neoliberal privatization orchestrated by right-wing think tanks and politicians in the wake of Katrina. I covered the imposition of a massive voucher scheme, no-bid contracting and corporate corruption by those with ties to the Bush administration such as Alvarez & Marsal and Rome Consulting, the dismantling of the public system and union by a for-profit consulting firm, and the replacement of public schools with a charter network. As I argued in the book this has to be understood as a concerted effort to dispossess poor and working class predominantly African American citizens of their communities by the business and political elite of the city and state and to turn them into investment opportunities. I contend that this is part of a much broader movement for privatization and deregulation which is not only about economic redistribution but about the redistribution of political control over public goods and services. As well, I argued these initiatives only make sense in relation to a history of racialized disinvestment in public services and infrastructure that resulted in a city with the least funded urban school system in the country. In short, I argued that the political right capitalized on natural disaster and in the process exacerbated the human made disasters that predated the storm. The consequences were a radical shift in educational governance and material resources away from those most in need of them. It seems to me that honest discussion about the state of the New Orleans schools and communities must take seriously this history and recognize that what is at stake in this is more than a vague notion of educational quality (especially the anti-critical kinds defined narrowly by tests scores) but struggles over material resources and cultural values by competing classes and groups. In other words the role that public schools play for a society theoretically committed to democracy has to be considered. When business and political elites wrest control of schools and communities from the public and then describe it as a gift to the public (the "silver lining in the storm") we are hardly approximating those collective ideals.

1 comment:

profcrocco said...

Two comments--one more focused on NOLA schools than the other. First, John Merrow has done a series of reports on New Orleans schools for PBS. The one in December, if readers can locate it, was quite eye-opening, especially about the recruits from Teach for America Paul Vallas has brought to the city's schools.
Second, I'm reading Tom Franks' (of What's the Matter with Kansas? fame) new book called The Wrecking Crew. It's very much in sync with what I take to be Saltman's thesis about the political right and the capitalization on disaster, in New Orleans and elsewhere. I'd recommend the book for those interested in the last thirty years of policy-making, government bashing, cronyism and opportunism since the Nixon administration. It's a frightening tale.