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Endgame: Disaster Capitalism, New Orleans, and the Charter Scam

How to monetize and what will the market bear are the guiding ethics of disaster capitalism, which exists seamlessly within the larger ethic of the US, capitalism.

The horror of 9/11 in 2001 and the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 captured both the 24/7 media attention and cultural consciousness in the U.S.

In the wake of both, however, the impact of disaster capitalism has remained mostly ignored and unchallenged.

How to monetize and what will the market bear are the guiding ethics of disaster capitalism, which exists seamlessly within the larger ethic of the U.S., capitalism.

Disaster capitalism came to New Orleans in full force in the wake of Katrina, possibly more powerful than a hurricane, in the person of Paul Vallas and his education policy, the Recovery School District.

Career teachers (a significant percentage of the African American middle-class in the city) were fired and public schools were systematically replaced by charter schools and the new pseudo-teacher workforce (mostly young and privileged Teach For America recruits who were transplanted to New Orleans).

Now, less than a decade after Katrina, Lyndsey Layton reports:

With the start of the next school year, the Recovery School District will be the first in the country made up completely of public charter schools, a milestone for New Orleans and a grand experiment in urban education for the nation.

Layton mostly paints this transformation in a positive light, focusing on an idealized view of market forces:

Advocates say the all-charter model empowers parents.

“We’ve reinvented how schools run,” said Neerav Kingsland of New Schools for New Orleans, which promotes and supports charter schools. He is leaving the organization to try to export the model to other cities. “If I am unhappy with service I’m getting in a school, I can pull my kid out and go to another school tomorrow. I don’t have to wait four years for an election cycle so I can vote for one member of a seven-member board that historically has been corrupt.”

By most indicators, school quality and academic progress have improved in Katrina’s aftermath, although it’s difficult to make direct comparisons because the student population changed drastically after the hurricane, with thousands of students not returning.

But this typically rosy but misleading picture of charter schools presents a different kind of evidence than intended, as Mercedes Schneider exposes:

Layton offers no substantial basis for her opinion of “improvement” other than that the schools were “seized” by the state following Katrina.

Certainly school performance scores do not support Layton’s idea of “improvement.” Even with the inflation of the 2013 school performance scores, RSD has no A schools and very few B schools. In fact, almost the entire RSD– which was already approximately 90 percent charters– qualifies as a district of “failing” schools according to Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal’s definition of “failing schools” as C, D, F schools and whose students are eligible for vouchers.

And even in Layton’s own article, we discover the dark truth beneath the polished sheen of charter school advocacy:

White students disproportionately attend the best charter schools, while the worst are almost exclusively populated by African American students. Activists in New Orleans joined with others in Detroit and Newark last month to file a federal civil rights complaint, alleging that the city’s best-performing schools have admissions policies that exclude African American children. Those schools are overseen by the separate Orleans Parish School Board, and they don’t participate in OneApp, the city’s centralized school enrollment lottery.

Yes, you see, a rising tide does lift all boats, but we forget to point out that a rising tide has no impact on who sits in what boats after that tide rises (just as we never note that a rising tide drowns those without boats, even those without boats through no fault of their own, because market forces are amoral).

Once again, behind the curtain of charter school propaganda we find that there is nothing about “charterness” that will reform the most corrosive aspects of inequity in U.S. schools, corrosive aspects that are a reflection of inequity in society.

The relabeling of schools as “charter,” in fact, is yet another euphemistic tactic to avoid the racism and classism that dare not be mentioned, much less addressed.

As Andre Perry uncovers about “community engagement” in New Orleans:

What does community engagement mean? In particular, how does community engagement work for a “takeover district?” It doesn’t really.

Community engagement is a euphemism for “how to deal with black folk.”

I never use certain metaphors. Immediately after Katrina and the breeches in the levees, I added “hurricane” to a list that includes “slavery,” “rape” and sometimes “war.” I’ve also become very alert to people who use euphemisms to conveniently rob words of their history and meaning.

Standards of decency should rise above poetic license.

Nevertheless, education reformers look to post-Katrina New Orleans as a model to increase the percentage of charter schools, remove attendance zones, take over failing schools, close schools, dissolve teachers unions and decentralize bureaucratically thick school districts.

I’m constantly asked, “In lieu of a hurricane, what can be done to radically reform school districts?” Hurricane has become the unspoken metaphor or referent that reform strategists muse upon to build apparatuses that can initiate the aforementioned strategies. The turnaround/takeover/portfolio district has evolved to become the hurricane of reformers’ desire. As a result, community engagement has become euphemism for “how to deal with black folk in the aftermath.”

As well, Deborah Meier challenges the same euphemistic use of “urban”:

Even the “urban” has switched its meaning. When the 1955 film appeared, it was a word for low-income city kids. It’s now a euphemism for the “African American,” “Latino” poor. The book The Power of Their Ideas starts with me asking kids what it meant to refer to as “inner city” in preparation for a visit to a largely white college. They got it when I added that Dalton (a rich white school 20 blocks further “into” the city) was not considered inner city. It was a euphemism for another euphemism—ghetto.

In other words, “charter school,” “Recovery School District,” “community engagement,” and “parental empowerment” are euphemisms designed to mask the consequences of disaster capitalism.

Charter schools as a rebranding of public schools into a free market model driven by competition and choice teach us some ignored but urgent lessons:

  • When parents choose segregation, that choice should not be on the public dime.
  • No impoverished children should have to depend on their parents’ choices in order to have equitable opportunities to learn

However, it seems unlikely these lessons will be heeded because in the U.S., the entire public is a distracted Nero as our Rome burns in the form of souvenirs for sell at the 9/11 museum and the eradication of public schools.

It is no longer enough to call the charter school movement a “scam” because the consequences are much higher than that, as Layton also reports:

John White, the state’s superintendent of education, agreed that access to the best schools is not equal in New Orleans, but he said the state is prevented by law from interfering with the Orleans Parish School Board’s operations.

“The claim that there’s an imbalance is right on the money,” White said. “The idea that it’s associated with privilege and high outcomes is right on the money.”

And here, we have idiom that speaks to the truth euphemisms avoid, possibly with the simple change of a preposition, about the money.