Americans love, above all, a narrative. Preferably a moral one, marked by a clear good and evil. For many so-called “school reformers,” the tragedy of Katrina, which marks its ten-year anniversary today, provided that narrative. Its stark before-and-after provided a clear A/B test as to the righteousness of their cause. Before was a “broken school system,” and after is a glossy, privatized education system.
We’ll set aside the fact that this is largely a fantasy. Torture the data enough, and the “New Orleans miracle” can be teased out if one wants it enough. Despite studies and reporting showing otherwise, for the sake of this piece it doesn’t actually matter if radical post-Katrina New Orleans school reform was a “success,” a failure or somewhere in between. What is important is that so many corporatists think this “miracle” was not just an incidental positive but was, all things considered, worth it. Worth the 1,800 people killed and the 100,000 African-Americans permanently ejected from the city.
The most popular examination of this pathology is, of course, from Naomi Klein, who coined the idea of the ”shock doctrine” in her 2007 book of the same name. In it, she explores how Katrina and other manmade and non-manmade disasters are exploited to rush through a radical right wing corporate agenda.
Those who find this a useful model are accused by critics like Malcolm Gladwell of “cynicism”; tragedies happen, they say, and we would be stupid not to exploit them. Here’s a list of those who championed this mode, both immediately after the storm and since. One can decide for themselves if this ideology-mongering was exploitation or good-faith public servants simply responding to crisis:
David Brooks: “Katrina’s Silver Lining” (New York Times, 9/8/05)
The first mainstream pundit to play the “golden opportunity” card was David Brooks, barely a week after the storm had passed. While his piece wouldn’t be as expressly exploitative, it would lay the groundwork for many of the corporatist tropes that would come to define the New Orleans-as-Randian-sandbox mode of thinking:
As a colleague of mine says, every crisis is an opportunity. And sure enough, Hurricane Katrina has given us an amazing chance to do something serious about urban poverty.
What Brooks meant by “doing something serious about urban poverty” was, of course, a mix of neoliberal and pro-corporate initiatives. First on his list: preventing those displaced from coming back to their neighborhoods:
If we just put up new buildings and allow the same people to move back into their old neighborhoods, then urban New Orleans will become just as rundown and dysfunctional as before.
He then called for “cultural integration,” which sounds an awful lot like rapid gentrification–basically moving select families to the suburbs to learn “middle-class skills,” whatever that means. Then he would go on to advocate for actual gentrification:
For New Orleans, the key will be luring middle-class families into the rebuilt city, making it so attractive to them that they will move in, even knowing that their blocks will include a certain number of poor people
“Even knowing their blocks will include a certain number of poor people.” Oh my! The op-ed was topped off with a subtle plug for charter schools—which at the time were exceedingly rare in New Orleans:
As people move in, the rebuilding effort could provide jobs for those able to work. Churches, the police, charter schools and social welfare agencies could be mobilized to weave the social networks vital to resurgent communities.
Koch Brothers: “Vouchers for New Orleans” (National Review, 9/15/05)
The first media player to outright suggest using the tragedy to serve a radical right-wing agenda was none other than the Koch brothers‘ ideological front Freedom Works, in an op-ed it published in the National Review (under the name of its public affairs director Chris Kinnan) just 13 days after the hurricane. While 96 percent of corpses still remained unidentified and the Superdome had been reduced to a “toxic biosphere,” the Koch brothers’ ideological spin was already underway.
In this op-ed, Freedom Works advocated a voucher program for New Orleans which was, at the time, a sort of gateway drug to full-on charter schools–both operating under the same broader “school choice” movement:
There is a second rescue urgently needed in the terrible aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and one that is long overdue: saving New Orleans school kids from their broken public-school system. The tragedy of the storm provides America with a golden opportunity.
It even came complete with racially coded language, begging Bush to allow the largely white state legislature the right to control recovery funds, because you know those looters:
Given this situation, New Orleans public-school administrators should not be trusted with a penny of federal educational aid. If they have been this irresponsible and abusive before Katrina, imagine the official looting that will occur with federal emergency aid money.
The trial balloon was floated, and the “opportunity” narrative was underway.
Leslie Jacobs: “New Orleans to Rebuild Schools, Reputation” (AP, 10/1/05)
Weeks later, pro-reform partisans like Leslie Jacob–who would go on to serve as the unilateral arbiter of pre-Katrina education statistics and founder of her own charter school–would jump in, telling AP in its own “overhaul” narrative shortly after the storm:
“It’s hard to find a silver lining from Katrina, but one silver lining is that the school board can start anew,” said Leslie Jacobs, from the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. “And if any school district needs to start anew, it’s Orleans.”
Just ten weeks after Katrina, while the state’s largely African-American diaspora was scattered throughout the Gulf Coast, the largely white state legislature called an emergency session and passed ACT 35. This law, in addition to dissolving the teachers union, radically changed the criteria of a “failing school” from any school with a score of less than 60 to include any school that was below the state score median of 86.2. Just like that, 107 of New Orleans’ 128 schools were put under pro-charter school state control, having retroactively failed to meet a new arbitrary standard. The “opportunity narrative” that was seeded over the previous three months had borne its first fruit.
Milton Friedman: “The Promise of Vouchers” (Wall Street Journal, 12/5/05)
To keep pressure on the US Congress, which was still doling out money at the time, radial free-market zealot Milton Friedman penned an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal that December making many of the same pleas Freedom Work’s did months prior:
Most New Orleans schools are in ruins, as are the homes of the children who have attended them. This is a tragedy. It is also an opportunity to radically reform the educational system.
If, by a political miracle, Louisiana could overcome the opposition of the unions and enact universal vouchers, it would not only serve itself, it would also render a service to the rest of the country by providing a large scale example of what the market can do for education when permitted to operate.
The most essential part of the plan for most reformers was to gut the teachers union completely. This, of course, was solely in service of the students.
American Enterprise Institute: “Hope After Katrina” (10/1/06)
As Naomi Klein notes in The Shock Doctrine, the right-wing AEI–the one also that helped bring us the Iraq War, yes–produced one of the more offensive post-Katrina exploitation lines in 2006:
It seemed that Katrina accomplished in a day—dismantling a derelict school district—what Louisiana school reformers couldn’t do after years of trying.
Arne Duncan: “Education Secretary Duncan Calls Hurricane Katrina Good for New Orleans Schools” (Washington Post, 1/30/10)
A few years and a new administration didn’t change the reformers overall ethos that Katrina was a net positive. Pro-charter school secretary of Education and former “CEO” of the Chicago school system Arne Duncan got into some hot water when he expressed, in an interview with TV One‘s Roland Martin, what many reformers had been saying for years in more coded or couched language:
I spent a lot of time in New Orleans, and this is a tough thing to say, but 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. And the progress that they’ve made in four years since the hurricane is unbelievable.
Kristen McQueary: “In Chicago, Wishing for a Hurricane Katrina” (Chicago Tribune, 8/13/15)
With the ten-year anniversary approaching, the pro-privatization partisans were at it again. The most egregious recent example being Chicago Tribune editorial writer Kristen McQueary, who was so naked in her praising for Katrina that she and her editors had to walk back and scrabble to edit (without notation) her uniquely vulgar op-ed. Here are some excerpts from before it was quietly edited:
But with Aug. 29 fast approaching and New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu making media rounds, including at the Tribune Editorial Board, I find myself wishing for a storm in Chicago – an unpredictable, haughty, devastating swirl of fury. A dramatic levee break. Geysers bursting through manhole covers.
A sleeping city, forced onto the rooftops. That’s what it took to hit the reset button in New Orleans. Chaos. Tragedy. Heartbreak.
It gets better:
That’s why I find myself praying for a real storm. It’s why I can relate, metaphorically, to the residents of New Orleans climbing onto their rooftops and begging for help and waving their arms and lurching toward rescue helicopters.
Except here, no one responds to the SOS messages painted boldly in the sky. Instead, they double down on their own man-made disaster.
Though her editors would go on to change “real” to “figurative” (quite a change to leave unmentioned), the point was clear: What happened to New Orleans wasn’t just a happy accident, it was actually a desired good. The deaths of 1,800 people were, in the long run, worth it.
Malcolm Gladwell: “Starting Over” (New Yorker, 8/24/15)
Our final entry is noted Big Thinkerâ„¢ and corporate speaking-fee collector Malcolm Gladwell. In his latest dispatch for the New Yorker, Gladwell laces his report with pro-charter school agitprop:
At the same time, however, Katrina reminds us that sometimes a clean break with the past has its advantages. The fact that you may have lived in a neighborhood for generations, or become attached to a set of long-standing educational traditions, does not mean that you should always return to that neighborhood if you are displaced, or reconstruct those traditions. The schools of New Orleans made a necessary and painful sacrifice: They extended the pain of Katrina in order to build a better future for the city’s children.
Again, that the school reforms were successful is highly contested, but here its simply asserted as fact. That aside, we see a refrain Brooks made some ten years ago: that not being able to go back to the neighborhoods they had known for generations was ultimately for New Orleans residents’ own good.
It’s important to make one essential distinction: there’s a difference between saying New Orleans is “better off” today than it was before the storm–which is something people tell ourselves as an earnest gesture of praising those who worked to rebuild a city–and saying the storm was somehow worth it. The former is a natural response to a terrible tragedy, the latter is a sleazy justification for exploitation.
This list is compiled of the latter, all of whom were either giddy with reformist delight immediately after the tragedy or justifying it long after. In either case, we have evidence of an ideology–an ideology of “creative destruction and “disaster capitalism”–so runaway, so deeply engrained in our corporate elite New Orleans was always seen as a way of unleashing free market reforms before the bodies were identified, much less buried.
What we see is an ideology that ignores culture, trades in patronizing racist tropes, and views democracy with contempt. What we see is a technocratic class so in love with its own models it can only discuss tragedy in terms of “opportunity” rather than people. What we see are the true cynics.