The education “shock doctrine”

Disaster schooling

IN A January interview U.S. Secretary of education, Arne Duncan declared, “Let me be really honest. I think the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina. That education system was a disaster, and it took Hurricane Katrina to wake up the community to say that ‘We have to do better.’” Yet if there is one particularly frightening example for the future of public education it lies in the aftermath of Katrina. The case of using the disaster as a way to push through the largest and quickest privatization scheme of any public school system ever attempted, was made widely known in Naomi Klein’s best-selling book The Shock Doctrine.

Three months after the hurricane hit, free-market fanatic Milton Friedman wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “Most New Orleans schools are in ruins, as are the homes of the children who have attended them. The children are now scattered all over the country. This is a tragedy. It is also an opportunity to radically reform the educational system.” As Klein points out:

Friedman’s radical idea was that instead of spending a portion of the billions of dollars in reconstruction money on rebuilding and improving New Orleans’ existing public school system, the government should provide families with vouchers, which they could spend at private institutions, many run at a profit, that would be subsidized by the state. It was crucial, Friedman wrote, that this fundamental change not be a stopgap but rather “a permanent reform.”

A network of right wing think tanks seized on Friedman’s proposal and descended on the city after the storm. The administration of George W. Bush backed up their plans with tens of millions of dollars to convert New Orleans schools into “charter schools,” publicly funded institutions run by private entities according to their own rules….

In sharp contrast to the glacial pace with which the levees were repaired and the electricity grid brought back online, the auctioning-off of New Orleans’ school system took place with military speed and precision. Within 19 months, with most of the city’s poor residents still in exile, New Orleans’ public school system had been almost completely replaced by privately run charter schools. Before Hurricane Katrina, the school board had run 123 public schools; now it ran just 4. Before the storm, there had been 7 charter schools in the city; now there were 31. New Orleans teachers used to be represented by a strong union; now the union’s contract had been shredded and its forty-seven hundred members had all been fired. Some of the younger teachers were rehired by the charters, at reduced salaries; most were not.1

In fact one of the first state actions, taken only three weeks after the storm, was to fire all the unionized teachers, disband the school board and turn the schools over to a state receiver in Baton Rouge, removing community accountability and effectively breaking the United Teachers of New Orleans. Margaret Spelling, Bush’s secretary of education, poured $24 million into New Orleans, all of which went to charter schools.2 The Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education gave control of over one-hundred New Orleans schools to the Chicago-based National Association of Charter School Authorizers, moving the process even further away from New Orleans and putting local educators and grass-roots community groups interested in reopening their local schools at an enormous disadvantage. This created a situation where in the absence of any community hearings or public debate, those well-connected and well-to-do parents or organizations with pre-existing resources and expertise were the first to respond with school proposals.

By the spring of 2006, “25 public schools had opened in New Orleans. Eighteen (72 percent) of those were charter schools, and 14 (56 percent) had established ‘selective’ admissions policies. In addition to the charter schools, the Orleans Parish School Board opened five schools in the city. In summer 2006, as families began to flood back into the city, the state conceded that it, too, would need to open and operate some schools. The Recovery School District (RSD) opened 17 state-run schools that fall.”3

This created a two-tiered education system. In New Orleans, there are no neighborhood schools that students are required to attend and there has been no oversight to assure that schools are opening where families are returning. As Leigh Dingerson commented in an article forRethinking Schools, “Parents returning to the city have had to negotiate a complex landscape to get their child into school. Registration is handled at each individual charter school, so parents must crisscross the city (with virtually no transportation infrastructure) to research schools and register their children.”4 While the student-to-teacher ratio at the new charter schools has been capped at twenty to one, class size in some RSD buildings has ballooned to nearly double that. When the seventeen RSD schools opened in 2006, there were no textbooks, many classrooms didn’t have any desks, students were served microwaved frozen meals, and buildings were effectively militarized with security guards often outnumbering teachers.

Since charter schools can choose their student population, there have been reports of charters in New Orleans dumping low-achieving students into the RSD schools mid-year before the state’s standardized assessment was to be given.5 So while the average performance scores of New Orleans schools have gone up from their pre-Katrina level, there are enormous differences between the scores of those in the RSD and the new charter schools.6

New Orleans is the first major city in the nation to have a majority of its students in charters, 61 percent of all its students in the 2009–10 school year. Along with familiar fliers for concerts and cultural events, “posters advertising new schools are tacked to telephone poles and plastered on the sides of the city’s iconic streetcars. Charter officials have set up booths outside Wal-Mart and gone door-to-door. Last summer, leaders from one school even followed ice-cream trucks around town to recruit children and their parents. And students in school uniforms emblazoned with charter insignia—and slogans—become walking, talking billboards for the places where they learn.”7 This free-market fantasy world could only become a reality after the ethnic cleansing of the city. The Black population of New Orleans has plummeted by 57 percent. 2008 Census data showed that half of the working poor, elderly, and disabled population that lived in New Orleans before Katrina has not returned.8

The Duncan Doctrine: Neoliberalism in Chicago
Alongside the Republican restructuring of New Orleans, Arne Duncan’s neoliberal remaking of the Chicago school system stands as a chilling reminder that when it comes to education policy, the Democratic Party is not too far behind its chief rival. As Henry Giroux and Kenneth Saltman have noted, Duncan

presided over the implementation and expansion of an agenda that militarized and corporatized the third largest school system in the nation, one that is about 90 percent nonwhite. Under Duncan, Chicago took the lead in creating public schools run as military academies, vastly expanded draconian student expulsions, instituted sweeping surveillance practices, advocated a growing police presence in the schools, arbitrarily shut down entire schools, and fired entire school staffs.9

Duncan, who has never taught in a classroom and who attended private schools all his life, has been a leading corporate reformer in education. He worked as the education program coordinator at Ariel Capital Management, where a headline on a brochure for their main school, Ariel Community Academy reads, “We want to make the stock market a topic of dinner table conversation.” First-graders are given $20,000 to invest in a class stock portfolio and each graduating class is supposed to return the original $20,0000 to the entering first grade and donate half the profits to the school with the rest distributed among the graduates.10 Duncan quickly moved on to become an executive of the Chicago Public Schools by age thirty-five and its CEO at thirty-eight.

Duncan headed up the Renaissance 2010 plan established by the elite Commercial Club, a century-old Chicago institution comprised of the largest and most powerful corporations in the city. With the help of the corporate consulting firm A.T. Kearny, the Commercial Club unleashed one of the most ambitious school privatization schemes since the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Renaissance 2010 called for the closing of one hundred public schools and reopening them as privatized charter schools. It was a page taken directly out of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) playbook. NCLB, passed in 2001 under the Bush administration, created a host of unattainable achievement goals measured through massive amounts of high-stakes standardized tests. Under these new, unachievable targets, schools are set up to fail and when they do the federal government swoops in and “restructures” them. Like NCLB, Renaissance 2010 targeted schools that have “failed” to meet Chicago’s accountability standards as defined by high-stakes standardized tests and turned them over to non-profit and often for-profit charters.

Another integral part of the plan is to hand control of schools away from teachers, their unions, and community residents and into the hands of the business sector. At least two-thirds of the newly opened schools will be nonunion. The Commercial Club raised $25 million from the corporate sector to close public schools and reopen them under the governance of an unelected board called the New Schools for Chicago (NSC) organization. The NSC is appointed by the Commercial Club and composed of leading corporate representatives and Chicago Public Schools executives. The “civic leaders” on what the Chicago Sun-Times dubbed a “shadow cabinet” include the chairs of McDonald’s Corporation and Northern Trust Bank, the retired chair of the Tribune Corporation, and the CEO of the Chicago Community Trust—a major corporate foundation.11

In the absence of a hurricane to force half of the poor population out of the city, these corporate cronies have resorted to more commonplace gentrification. As Chicago Teachers for Social Justice have explained “Renaissance 2010 is not just a school plan. It is part of a much larger plan for gentrification and for moving out low-income African Americans and some Latinos from prime real estate areas, in fact from the city altogether. These are the areas where the proposed school closings are concentrated.”12

Chicago has a long history of underfunding its public housing developments resulting in rotting infrastructure and chronic infestation by rodents and insects. Public housing was made into a last resort for the poorest of the poor. Beginning in the early 2000s the Chicago Housing Authority began using private contractors to tear down the public housing developments and put up new mixed-income developments that price most of the former residents out of the community. Closing down the underfunded public school in the area and opening a new charter school is the perfect way to attract a new wealthier and whiter population to the area. As Pauline Lipman, a progressive Urban Education scholar at the University of Illinois in Chicago writes:

As public housing is torn down and new condos and luxury town houses rise up, the city and the real estate developers are removing any traces of the people who once lived there. Closing the schools and then reopening them as new schools is a signal to future middle-class residents that the area is being “reborn.” This has been a frequent theme in business and school leaders’ statements in the press. When the agenda to “reinvent” Midsouth schools was first made public in the Chicago Tribune, on December 19, 2003, Terry Mazany, CEO of Chicago Community Trust and member of the planning team, described the connection between schools and development of the area this way: “[Bronzeville’s] a great physical location, so close to the lake and downtown,” he said. “It’s a delicate balance to pull something like this off. You can’t do it just with the housing and retail development. You have to get the third leg and that’s the schools.13

Before he became the education secretary, Arne Duncan was an enthusiastic advocate for the Commercial Club’s scheme, privatizing Chicago public schools at a rate of about twenty schools per year. Revealing his corporate-minded orientation to schooling, Duncan told a room full of businessmen at the Commercial Club’s “Free to Choose, Free to Succeed: The New Market in Public Education” symposium in May of 2008, “I am not a manager of 600 schools. I’m a portfolio manager of 600 schools and I’m trying to improve my portfolio.”14

Detroit public schools: Extending the education “shock doctrine” 
Now that Arne Duncan has been promoted to U.S. secretary of education he plans to use the economic crisis as a way to force the public education system across the United States down the path of New Orleans and Chicago. Nowhere is this more apparent than the city most devastated by the Great Recession. Detroit, which was a struggling city well before the crisis, has now been pushed over the edge. As the Observer reported last November, “The city has a shocking jobless rate of 29 percent. The average house price in Detroit is only $7,500, with many homes available for only a few hundred dollars.”15 A third of the city has been completely abandoned, prompting new proposals by the mayor to demolish an estimated 10,000 buildings and turn largely abandoned neighborhoods into farmland.16

The shock of the recession has provided the perfect political cover for a drastic reorganization of the city’s school system and a sharp attack on the Detroit Federation of Teachers. In January of 2009, Democratic Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm appointed Robert Bobb, president and CEO of the LAPA Group, LLC, a private- and public-sector consulting firm, as the emergency financial manager for Detroit Public Schools (DPS). Bobb, who was tasked with getting “the Detroit Public Schools’ fiscal house in order” is one of the many graduates of the Broad Residency in Urban Education program who hold high-level positions in urban school districts across the nation. The Broad Foundations began in the 1960s with the mission to transform “urban K-12 public education through better governance, management, labor relations and competition.”17

The Broad Residency in Urban Education offers young business majors a full-time, senior-level management position in a large urban school district. For two years, Broad pays half of their salary, and after that, the district is supposed to foot the bill. In a detailed look at Bobb’s business friendly background, author Danny Weil points out that “in an interview with the Detroit News, Broad admitted he contributed $28,000 toward Bobb’s new Detroit salary and moving expenses, plus hundreds of thousands for other material needs connected to Bobb’s leisure lifestyle as a carnival barker of educational privatization efforts.”18

In May 2009, Bobb’s “cost-cutting” endeavors got a boost when Arne Duncan proclaimed DPS “ground zero” for education reform because of the district’s low performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress test. In December, Bobb helped negotiate a controversial contract agreement with Detroit teachers, which requires most union members defer $10,000 in pay over the next two years.19 His new plan, unveiled in March, proposes the closure of forty-four Detroit public schools and the opening of seventy new charter and private schools. As Detroit charter school advocate, Doug Ross, outlined at a recent news conference:

The old plan said to parents, wait, be patient, give us another five years to improve the school where your child goes. This plan says, uh-uh, the waiting is over, we’re going to close low performing schools, we’re going to open new ones, and parents, now you have to take the initiative to go find the best school for your child.20

Detroit currently has nearly 70 percent of its population in public schools and 30 percent in charter schools. The new “Excellent Schools Detroit” initiative calls for a radical redistribution of Detroit’s school-going population, setting the goal that by 2015 only 25 percent of students will still attend Detroit public schools and 75 percent will go to charter schools.21

Two sides of the same capitalist coin 
The essential dilemma these examples illustrate for those that care about preserving public education is that both major parties look at educational reform from the perspective of a business investor. The purpose of any investment in education is to better compete in global markets. Students are seen as passive recipients of knowledge— not knowledge for liberation or to deal with the pressing problems of the twenty-first century—but knowledge that will prepare students to enter the labor force and increase America’s economic competitiveness. These corporate reformers see creating competitive, rational individuals who strive to compete in the marketplace and become productive members of the workforce as the most important function of schooling. In their cost-benefit analyses they weigh monetary investments in education with economic gains to society. So if they don’t see an economic gain in investing in education, they won’t do it.

Under this model, students’ progress is measured by standardized tests and data collection. These policies are exemplified in the No Child Left Behind Act. Most people think of NCLB as a Republican policy because it happened under President George W. Bush. But in fact, more Democrats voted for the bill than Republicans did. In a March 2001 issue of the Democratic Leadership Council’s Blueprint Magazine, Andrew Rotherham wrote, “Mr. Bush’s education agenda is largely a New Democratic one…. The new education bill, which is regarded widely as ‘Bush’s education initiative,’ was largely written by Democratic Sens. Joe Lieberman (Conn.) and Evan Bayh (Ind.), along with other New Democrats.”22 In fact, the parts that the Democrats claim responsibility for are those that deal with accountability and school choice.

The neoliberals in both parties aim to structure government funding of education as a way to reorganize the school system to better fit the needs of corporations. This is why they support standardized tests, charter schools, merit pay, and “turnarounds” even though there is evidence these policies negatively impact education and student performance. It is not the case that the Obama administration has somehow missed the studies that prove these policies don’t improve education. While Race to the Top and the new restructuring of NCLB will most certainly fail at its stated goal of improving public education, it remains to be seen whether its real goal of weakening the teachers’ unions and further privatizing public education will become a reality. Corporate reformers led by Arne Duncan want to apply lean management to the public education system. They hope to force teachers to work longer hours for less pay and fewer benefits, and deskill the job of an educator, taking control of curriculum development from the classroom and placing it into the hands of enormous textbook and testing companies.

This system of incentives and threats that reformers like Arne Duncan are creating will devastate the public education system for years to come. It will take the active organization of teachers, students, and parents nationwide to turn the tide.


  1. Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2007), 5.
  2. Interview with Michael Molina, “Privatization and the Katrina solution,” Socialist Worker, May 28, 2008.
  3. Leigh Dingerson, “Narrow and unlovely,” Rethinking Schools, Volume 21, No. 4, Summer 2007.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. David Parker Jr., “New Orleans public schools: Still under water?,” Nation, May 20, 2009.
  7. Alexander Fenwick, “Charter schools rise in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina,”U.S. News & World Report, December 23, 2009.
  8. Bill Quigley, “The cleansing of New Orleans,” CounterPunch, March 4, 2008, http://www.counterpunch.org.
  9. Henry A Giroux and Kenneth Saltman, “Obama’s betrayal of public education? Arne Duncan and the corporate model of schooling,” Truthout, December 17, 2008, http://www.truthout.org.
  10. Joel Spring, Political Agendas for Education, From Change We Can Believe in to Putting America First, Fourth Edition (New York: Routledge, 2010), 1.
  11. Kenneth J. Saltman, Capitalizing on Disaster: Taking and Breaking Public Schools (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2007), 143–44.
  12. Teachers for Social Justice, “TSJ Position on Renaissance 2010,” http://www.teachersforjustice.org.
  13. Pauline Lipman, “We’re not blind. Just follow the dollar sign,” Rethinking Schools Online, Summer 2005, http://www.rethinkingschools.org.
  14. Giroux and Saltman, “Obama’s betrayal of public education?”
  15. Paul Harris, “How Detroit, the Motor City, turned into a ghost town,” Observer(UK), November 1, 2009.
  16. Interview with Sharon “Shea” Howell, Democracy Now!, April 2, 2010.
  17. Quoted from The Broad Foundation Web site, http://www.broadfoundation.org.
  18. Danny Weil, “Detroit Teachers fight obsequious politicians, union bosses and privatizations plans,” Daily Censored, February 14, 2010.
  19. Chastity Pratt Dawsey and Gina Damron, “Detroit teachers union OKs deal with school district,” Free Press, December 19, 2009.
  20. “Mass closures of public schools, promotion of charters raise fears of privatized Detroit education system,” Interview with Nate Walker, Democracy Now! April 2, 2010.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Andrew J. Rotherham, “How Bush stole education,” Blueprint Magazine, March 25, 2002.

 

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