Privatizing Education in New Orleans

The Commodification of Education

By Kristen Govereau - 2008.

United States - It is clear that shocked societies often give up the things that they would otherwise fiercely protect, just like that of New Orleans and their public schooling system. This is how the shock doctrine works: the original disaster—the coup, the terrorist attack, the market meltdown, the war, the tsunami, the hurricane—puts the entire population into a state of collective shock” (Klein 19). Naomi Klein in her latest book The Shock Doctrine; the rise of Disaster Capitalism posits the theory of “disaster capitalism.” Her book promises to expose how natural disasters and political crises across the globe have been exploited by a series of secret operatives seeking to introduce economics of the variety championed by the late Milton Friedman.

Milton Friedman was champion of the movement for unfettered capitalism and advocated for minimal government involvement in a free market as means to establishing political and economic freedom. Friedman’s ‘economic shock therapy’, the idea that sweeping economic changes are the best imposed when citizens are feeling the effects in the aftermath of a crisis; has been described by Klein as “disaster capitalism”, orchestrated raids on the public sphere in the wake of catastrophic events, combined with the treatment of disasters as exciting market opportunities” (Klein 6). Friedman’s radical idea was that instead of placing money into projects geared towards the re-building and improving New Orleans’ existing public school system, after the violent Hurricane of 2005, the government should grant families vouchers which they could spend at private institutions, many which are run at profit, that would be subsidized by the state.

The privatization of public schooling following Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf Coast, to the ways that No Child Left Behind policy sets up public schools to be dismantled and made into investment opportunities, represents a grotesque pattern that is emerging in which business is capitalizing on disaster.

Today, all over the world a number of privatization techniques are being initiated through a process involving the dismantling of public schools like the example of New Orleans, followed by the opening of for-profit charter and deregulated public school system. These visions are accompanied by a thirst for experiments especially when they include the interests of the private sector. The initiatives are formed by right wing think tanks. For example, No Child Left Behind is an initiative which mirrors characteristics of disaster capitalism and economic shock therapy talked about by Milton Friedman and Naomi Klein.

This policy sets schools up for failure by making impossible demands for continual improvement. When schools have not met the standards according to the Adequate Yearly Progress reports, they are subject to punitive action by the federal government which entails the potential loss of formerly guaranteed federal funding and requirements for tutoring from a vast array of for-profit Special Educational Service providers. Schools that are not keeping up to the Adequate Yearly Progress reports they are forced to restructure in ways that encourage privatization, discourage unions, and avoid local regulations.

By the year 2013 nearly all of the schools in the Great Lakes region of the US will be declared failed public schools and subject to such revitalization. For example, in Illinois, schools that are already receiving the least funding and already serving the poorest students are being threatened with losing federal funds, having to use scarce resources for under-regulated and often un-proven tutoring services or being punished, reorganized, or closed and re-opened as “choice” schools which include for-profit or non-profit charter schools that do not provide the same level of public oversight and accountability as public schools may be granted. These concerns are seen as already designed to undermine those public schools that have been undeserving in the first place in order to make the privatization of schemes seem ethical.

Public schools all over the world are adopting an agenda of prizatization in the form of standardized testing thresholds without raising the necessary investment and commitment. What this appears to be is a system designed to hand out threats instead of funding promises, a system designed to result in the declaration of wide-scale failure of public schooling just to provide a means for privatization.

A for-profit educational contractor from Alaska, by the name of Akima, ‘won’ a no-bid contract to build temporary portable classrooms in the region of New Orleans, following this natural disaster. The for-profit education’s big haul in the ‘Big Easy’ was in the US department of education imposing the largest-ever school voucher experiment for the region and nation. The right wing think tanks and political parties which privatized public schooling prepared papers and advocated rights for such an approach, describing the public school privatization as a “silver lining” and a “golden opportunity”.

The site of demolished public schools became one of the “golden opportunities” for private companies such as Akima and contracting companies alike. Children could not get adequate and healthy educational direction in these ‘still standing’ public schools so new ones needed to be built containing a new look and a new purpose.

Sajan George is a director of Alvarez and Marsal, a Bush cronie business-consulting firm that is making millions in its role in sub-contracting the rebuilding of schools. He states, along with others that, “This is the silver lining in the dark cloud of Katrina. We would not have been able to start with an almost clean slate if Katrina had not happened”.

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