“Disaster capitalism” may at first blush appear to be hyperbole, ideological manipulation, or so much academic jargon; however, after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, the education reform that disaster unintentionally created now represents the various components of how those market-based policies both reflect and perpetuate the very educational problems reformers claim to be addressing.

For this post, I am targeted as elements of disaster capitalism education reform the following: dismantling teachers’ unions/tenure, hiring Teach For America (TFA) cadets, converting traditional public schools to charter schools, and creating takeover districts (often called “achievement” or “opportunity” districts).

Before addressing how these disaster capitalism reforms are failing, I want to emphasize that very real and clear problems exist in traditional public schools (TPS), for example:

  • TPS are increasingly segregated by race and social class.
  • Vulnerable student populations (poor, black/brown, English Language Learners [ELL], special needs students) are disproportionately attending underfunded schools and school buildings in disrepair; they are funneled into low-tracked courses that are test-prep and/or unchallenging (basic); they are assigned inexperienced and un-/under-certified teachers while also sitting in high teacher-student ratios courses; and they are disproportionately subjected to inequitable disciplinary policies and outcomes.

When the education reform movement kicked into high gear, the promises were grand and the evidence was thin, but now we are beginning to have evidence of how the grand claims have wilted on the vine, and the fruit is rotting all around us.

The blunt truth is disaster capitalism reform commitments failed to admit the real problems facing our TPS (societal inequity as well as in-school inequity), offered market-based solutions that could only address problems indirectly (the Invisible Hand), and have refused to admit the growing research base showing that these so-called reforms create and perpetuate the problems reformers ignored at the outset (the whole “no excuses” charade that trivialized addressing societal inequity as making excuses).

Charter schools are not raising test scores, but they are segregating children by race and class. Charter schools are also intensifying the already inequitable disciplinary practices vulnerable students face in formal schooling (notably for black and brown children).

Takeover school districts (such as the Recovery School District in New orleans) have been unmasked as failures.

But possibly the best example of how disaster capitalism education reform is failing is now being exposed by former TFA participants, specifically the research of Terrenda C. White.

White’s analysis reveals that while TFA makes big claims about addressing diversity (and may have done so within TFA), the consequences of districts and states committing to TFA have had the opposite effect. In an interview, White strikes at this paradox:

What happened in New Orleans, for example, is a microcosm of this larger issue where you have a blunt policy that we know resulted in the displacement of teachers of color, followed by TFA’s expansion in that region. I’ve never heard TFA talk about or address that issue. Or take Chicago, where the number of Black teachers has been cut in half as schools have been closed or turned around. In the lawsuits that teachers filed against the Chicago Board of Education, they used a lot of social science research and tracked that if a school was low performing and was located on the north or the west side and had a higher percentage of white teachers, that school was less likely to be closed. As the teachers pointed out, this wasn’t just about closing low-performing schools, but closing low-performing schools in communities of color, and particularly those schools that had a higher percentage of teachers of color. What bothers me is that we have a national rhetoric about wanting diversity when at the same time we’re actually manufacturing the lack of diversity in the way in which we craft our policies. And we mete them out in a racially discriminatory way. So in many ways we’re creating the problem we say we want to fix (emphasis added).

The evidence is clear, across the elements of disaster capitalism education reform, that these policies are suffering from the same inequities that are at the root of TPS failures.

I have been making this plea for some time now, but the evidence has grown in my favor, and even those from within the disaster capitalism education reform movement, such as White, have begun to admit the crack:

Accordingly, with admirable, though misdirected intentions, they very seriously and very sentimentally set themselves to the task of remedying the evils that they see. But their remedies do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it. Indeed, their remedies are part of the disease (emphasis added). (Oscar Wilde [1891], The Soul of Man under Socialism)

Let us now admit the larger problems, confront the failures of TPS, and then create policies that address directly and openly the problems, many of which are related to race and social class inequity.