Before Katrina there was Mitch. Hurricane Mitch left more than 9,000 people dead and whole villages destroyed throughout Central America. In the wake of the storm, elite groups used the disaster to push an agenda of privatization in the name of reconstruction. The Honduran congress passed legislation allowing the sell-off of public airports, seaports, and highways. Lawmakers rushed to privatize the national electric company, the phone company, and parts of the water infrastructure. Measures made it easier for foreigners to buy and sell property. Similar investor-friendly policies were enacted in Nicaragua and Guatemala.
Writing more than a year before Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, social critic Naomi Klein warned 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.” As the 2006-07 school year gets underway, disaster capitalism finds its expression in the drastic fragmentation of New Orleans schools.
We should all pay attention to what is unfolding in New Orleans; there has been too much silence about the ongoing crisis there. But we should also see New Orleans as a harbinger, as it represents the wish-dreams of a social class that regards the world as one giant collection of investment opportunities. It’s a selfish, scary fantasyland that has become all too real for families in New Orleans; and the privatizers hope to export the Louisiana educational free-for-all to the rest of the country.
Post-Katrina Gold Rush
First, a caveat: By all accounts, prior to Hurricane Katrina, the public school system in New Orleans was one of the least successful in the country — although according to the state’s own accountability system, 93 of 117 Orleans Parish schools had made academic progress in the year before the storm. But a year after the storm, the teachers union has been all but broken; families struggle to make sense of a baffling mix of public, charter, and private schools; and many students are without any schools at all.
The United Teachers of New Orleans (UTNO, American Federation of Teachers Local 527) had long been a progressive and activist organization, and thus a target — a disaster “opportunity.” Last September, the school board put all of Orleans Parish’s 7,500 school employees, including 4,500 teachers, on forced leave without pay. In October, Orleans Parish School Board created the Algiers Charter School District out of 13 schools on the west bank of the Mississippi, with the stipulation that no employees could be members of the teachers union. Then in February, the school board voted to fire all 7,500 school employees.
As UTNO president Brenda Mitchell says starkly in the speech we excerpt in this issue (page 24), “It is about breaking unions, it is about breaking the spirit of working-class people. It is about denying them their rights.”
With millions of dollars of encouragement from Bush’s Department of Education — and with the union decimated — New Orleans and Louisiana school authorities set about creating a bewildering supermarket of school choice for families. As the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Community Change reports in a fine new publication called Dismantling a Community (available at www.communitychange.org), the Louisiana State Department of Education has announced that it will open these schools in 2006-07:
- Thirteen charters authorized by the Recovery School District (the state agency that has taken over 107 New Orleans schools). These charters are operated by independent charter associations, for-profit entities, national charter school operators, or others.
- Six charters operated by the Algiers Charter School Association.
- Two charters authorized directly by the State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and operated by separate entities.
- Five schools operated directly by the Orleans Parish School Board. Four of those are “selective admission” schools.
- Ten charters approved by the Orleans Parish School Board and operated by a range of groups.
- Seventeen schools operated directly by the Recovery School District — open-admission schools that must guarantee seats for all students who enroll.
The editors of Dismantling a Community summarize this bizarre new “system”:
As school opens this fall, families in New Orleans are faced with dozens of largely independent schools, each with its own enrollment process and requirements, start date, and instructional program. Public dollars — including millions in federal monies — have been transferred to these entities without centralized oversight. In its design, and indeed in its early operation, this network of independent schools has functioned like a sieve: sifting, separating, and disbursing children and families. Below it are the now state-run schools that promise to catch all those who fail to find a seat when the sorting stops.
It’s what longtime New Orleans teacher Jim Randels refers to as an “educational land-grab.”
There is little concern for equity in this new scholastic shopping mall. Nothing to ensure the needs of poor children and children of color are taken into account, or those of students with special needs. In a system where schools will be competing for the supposedly “best and brightest” — students and teachers alike — increasing race and class segregation is all but guaranteed.
It is no surprise that the most radical school privatization experiment in recent U.S. history should be visited on New Orleans. Prior to Katrina, the public school system was 96 percent African-American, in a city with a poverty rate double the national average, in a state with black infant mortality rates roughly equal to those in Sri Lanka. Who better to experiment on? This contempt especially for African Americans and the poor is consistent with long and shameful traditions.
And as Barbara Miner points out in her column (page 28), the academic track record of charters nationally is nothing to brag about. Research compiled and released this summer by the U.S. Department of Education shows students attending public schools consistently outperform charter school students. Stripped of any educational justification for charters, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings was forced to fall back on ideology, claiming that charters are valuable because they “are empowering low-income parents with new educational options.” In other words, “Yeah, we know charters don’t benefit kids, but, hey, they expand the marketplace.”
Still, there are rays of hope in this gloomy portrait. One is the work of Students at the Center (SAC) in New Orleans, an exemplary program that engages students in writing about their lives, in school and out. The writings of students and teachers involved in SAC are featured in Dismantling a Community and in this issue. (See pages 14–16.) SAC’s principles argue, “Students are a resource to, and not just an object of the education process;” and “Education is for community development in addition to individual student development.” SAC’s values of community and social responsibility stand in stark contrast to the consumerist and competitive ethos that informs post-Katrina school reform in New Orleans.
We also find hope in the work of activist groups like the Common Ground Collective, whose slogan is “solidarity, not charity,” and whose relief efforts in post-Katrina New Orleans include community organizing for quality schools (see page 22); and in the work of teachers like LauraElizabeth Adelman-Cannon, who navigate the contradictions of trying to maintain values of equity and justice amidst an increasingly balkanized school system (see page 25). And hope can be found in the ongoing defiance of the teachers union. As its president, Brenda Mitchell, insists, “We refuse to lose the right to have our voices heard anywhere and everywhere they ought to be heard.”
Ultimately, what is unfolding in New Orleans is not only about schools — it is about the kind of world in which we want to live. The free-market impulse behind the educational chaos in New Orleans is the same as that behind the World Trade Organization, the North American Free Trade Agreement, and the pro-investor/anti-labor policies imposed in U.S.-occupied Iraq: Profit reigns supreme; there are no citizens, only customers. As Adolph Reed, a native of New Orleans, writes in the Sept. 18, 2006, issue of The Nation on the post-Katrina transformation: “The goal of this change is acceptance, as the unquestioned natural order of things, that private is always better than public, and that the main functions of government are to enhance opportunities for the investor class and suppress wages for everyone else.”
But as organizations and activists have been declaring with greater regularity and urgency in U.S. and international forums: Another world is possible.