Capitalizing on Disaster: Taking and Breaking Public Schools

reviewed by Richard D. Lakes - September 17, 2008

coverTitle: Capitalizing on Disaster: Taking and Breaking Public Schools
Author(s): Kenneth J. Saltman
Publisher: Paradigm Publishers, Boulder
ISBN: 1594513821, Pages: 184, Year: 2007
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Recently in a multicultural education class I assigned a Rethinking Schools publication by Bill Bigelow (2006) titled The line between us: Teaching about the border and Mexican immigration, that revealed how globalization has destroyed a way of life for thousands of rural peoples in the South. Independent farmers were driven off their lands through structural adjustment policies enforced by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, no longer able to earn a living since imported tariff-free American-grown corn was cheaper to buy than cultivation of the domestic varieties. Under the North American Free Trade Act, transnational corporations were encouraged to expand production in border town zones as well, with few if any regulatory labor and environmental controls, resulting in misery for maquiladora workers usually earning a daily sum equivalent to our hourly wage. Advocates of this style of free-market capitalism (termed neoliberals) demanded governmental cuts for funding of state-supported services while implementing privatization policies that further removed the public from democratically-run institutions. Kenneth Saltman offers an important contribution to the analysis of neoliberal imperatives in the North with his study of privatization of schooling in New Orleans, Chicago, and the educational plans for post-war Iraq; he provides further evidence that free markets enrich a few at the expense of many.  

In the first chapter, Saltman examines how privatization schemes in New Orleans have resulted in termination of many unionized teaching and non-teaching personnel and support staff. After the Hurricane Katrina flood-waters receded, the state of Louisiana seized the city’s public schools and fired all district employees, then rehired a smaller corps of teachers and staff, and reopened some public schools and a limited number of charters. With an unspoken desire not to welcome those flooded-out back into the city, the recovery plan was “dictated by the urban cleansing dreams of an economic and racial elite,” the author wrote; and he noted “now that the storm has done the clear-cutting, the dream of the field of economic competition can be built” (p. 60). Instead of improving the city’s schools, however, a neoliberal reality of post-disaster capitalism set in, ushering forth a business-inspired voucher plan to disperse poor black residents from the city into the Gulf Coast region. These practices are part and parcel of a calculated land-grab by realtors who eyed the potential profits to be amassed in urban renewal and gentrification of “blighted” public lands—buttressed by a legal precedent now favoring developers due to the recent Supreme Court ruling over eminent domain in the city of New London, Connecticut.  

A second chapter exposes our governmental post-war privatization plans in Iraq. Outsourcing to a variety of firms in rebuilding the destroyed Iraqi infrastructure, the Bush administration offered sweetheart deals with a number of no-bid contractors that enriched the pockets of company stockholders. The American public has learned of the ways Haliburton and Bechtel profited in the reconstruction efforts, but few knew about the efforts of Creative Associates International, Incorporated (CAII) to rebuild the schools and supply textbooks and curriculum materials, teacher education programs, and staffing and administration.  The private, for-profit CAII has a history of involvement in international aid since the Reagan era, including USAID-funded development work in Haiti, Nicaragua, and Afghanistan. Saltman notes that the rightist intentions of these “democracy promotion projects” are grafted onto militaristic agendas that enforce neoliberal economic policy (p. 73)—borne out by Klein (2007) in her superb study of the past three decades of CIA-led corporatist takeovers of left-leaning countries.

In the third and final chapter, Saltman details the gentrification efforts on Chicago’s south side that led to the seizure of longstanding public housing and subsequent sale of these valuable lands to private residential developers. At the same time Chicago’s public schools in these neighborhoods were targeted for restructuring as charters, sanctioned by a mayoral plan, which was endorsed by civic leaders, titled Renaissance 2010, that proposes to close the large number of so-called failing schools as defined by the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). Saltman rightly claims that the accountability mandates in NCLB “have been designed to undermine those public schools that have been underserved in the first place in order to justify privatization schemes” (p. 127). Urban educational reform plans along these lines are used by economic developers to entice people from the wealthier professional middle classes to live, work, and play in the city; thereby, pushing low-income and poor citizens to the margins, or into suburban “enclaves of poverty” for some, and to homelessness for others (p. 135).   

This slim book adds to the literature on neoliberal public policy and educational reform. Yet I would have desired more chapters that detail the actual grassroots activities among citizens fighting privatization of schools. Aside from several brief vignettes about oppositional politics in the city and the names of a few web- and community-based organizations regularly involved in progressive educational activism, little further explanation of good works was evident. We need more study of the actual narratives of counter-hegemonic resistance. For example, progressives can learn from the actions of unionized school teachers who have led the fight in Mexico against merit pay, standardized testing, and top-down administrative reforms. These folks are committed to defending public education “as an expression of grassroots democracy” through a variety of direct-action mobilizations including “strikes, picketing, protest marches, occupations of highways and radio and television stations,” among others, in the struggles against neoliberal incursions (Arriaga Lemus, 2008, p. 224). They comprise the widening anti-globalization movement, a “Lilliput Strategy” that Brecher and Costello (1994, p. 9) named based upon the tiny residents who tied down the giant Gulliver in his travels. Their idea of globalization from below “requires grassroots rebellions against downward leveling, local coalition-building, transnational networking, and creating or reforming international institutions.”  I know that Saltman too desires a strong movement from below of Lilliputians resistant to corporate imperatives that threaten democracy and justice in our lives. As do I.


Arriaga Lemus, M. (2008).  In Mexico, to defend education as a social right, we must fight for union democracy. In M. Compton & L. Weiner, (Eds.), The global assault on teaching, teachers, and their unions (pp. 221-226). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Bigelow, B. (2006). The line between us: Teaching about the border and Mexican immigration. Milwaukee, WI: Rethinking Schools, Ltd.

Brecher, J., & Costello, T. (1994). Global village or global pillage: Economic reconstruction from the bottom up. Boston, MA: South End Press.

Klein, N. (2007). The shock doctrine: The rise of disaster capitalism. New York: Picador.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: September 17, 2008 ID Number: 15379, Date Accessed: 1/27/2022 12:26:38 PM

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