Editor's Introduction to the Longest 'Review' in Substance History. 'The Shock Doctrine', No Child Left Behind, and Chicago's 'school reform' since 1995... 'The Shock Doctrine' and Chicago's corporate 'school reform'

[This essay originally appeared in the print edition of Substance, October 2007, and has been expanded here for the on-line edition].

Editor’s Introduction

The book review beginning on this page in the print edition of Substance (October 2007) is the longest ever published in Substance. It could be longer and well worth our attention. Why? Consider:

The excerpt from the Introduction to “The Shock Doctrine” that follows (below, in italic type) helps explain why the book is relevant to everyone facing the paradoxes of Chicago’s public schools today. Since 1999, Chicago has been exporting its cadre of experts in corporate "school reform" to other cities in the USA. In 1999, Detroit, after a barrage of propaganda about the "success" of Chicago's corporate model of "school reform", was subjected to the "CEO Model", with centralized executive control under a Republican governor, rather than a "Democratic" mayor.

Other cities (Cleveland, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and finally New York City itself) quickly followed suit, replacing democratic school boards and other forms of governance with central power, usually under a "Chief Executive Officer" (CEO) instead of an educator.

After Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, the ugly face of Chicago's corporate "school reform" cadre became even more clear. Like the "Chicago Boys" who went into Chile after that first September 11 (1973, when the elected government was overthrown by the Pinochet dictatorship), the "Chicago Boys" of 2007 were privatization and free market ideologues, backed by ruthless state power. Union busting and privatization were their creeds.

But the official corporate narrative was the opposite of the truth. Beginning last year, the corporate media in Chicago and elsewhere were full of laudatory stories about how a group of Chicago “experts” were helping “reform” the devastated public schools of New Orleans. “Reform” meant the destruction — mostly through massive privatization via charter schools — of the public schools of New Orleans. 'Reform' meant the destruction of the teachers’ union, one of the strongest unions in the Old South and long a bastion of power for African American workers both in New Orleans and in Louisiana. 'Reform' meant the radical revamping of the mission of public education in one of the most important — and world famous — cities in the United States. The New Orleans miracle planned in conjunction with advisors from Chicago was allowed by most pundits to exclude thousands of New Orleans children, because it was a charter school privatization experiment — and therefore “good.”

Results of the 'CEO model' and the Daley dictatorship in Chicago

As readers of Substance know, the decisions of those who run CPS for the past 12 years have seemed wrongheaded or worse. If we think that they were supposed to be operating a public school system that tried to equitably serve all the children of Chicago, the closing of schools and displacement of children doesn’t make sense. Once we view CPS from their side of the class divide, what they are doing has a logic as pure as the dozens of case histories Naomi Klein’s book “The Shock Doctrine” offers.

First, the regime is about privatization, not public education as anyone has ever known it. The regime currently operating Chicago’s “public” schools is really working as quickly as possible to privatize as much of that school system as possible. That's why leadership was taken out of the hands of educators with long commitment to public schools and placed in the hands of hacks. Hence, Arne Duncan, a vapid scion of the University of Chicago and Chicago's new Black entrepreneur class (Ariel Capital Managment and others);

Hence, Paul Vallas, an oppotrunist City Hall hack with roots both in Chicago and Springfield and no experience in education or schooling.

Hence, dozen of top executives (think for a minute about Chicago’s “New Schools” department) with no school experience running the nation’s third largest school system.

Second, corporate “school reform” and mayoral control were designed to privatize through the withdrawal of resources from existing public schools, while lavishing resources on "entrepreneurial" activities, especially (but not exclusively) charter schools. Combining "housing reform" and "welfare reform" and beginning during the Clinton administration during the 1990s, corporate "reforms" in Chicago were about undermining the education of the city’s poorest children and ignoring the vast inequities in Chicago’s economic racial and class structures, and eliminating where possible the last vestiges of democratic opposition to corporate rule through union busting, the elimination of elected Local School Councils, and an all-out assault on democratic critique of the 'CEO Model' in any media (hence, a million dollar lawsuit to try and put this newspaper out of business).

During the 12 years since the Illinois General Assembly in 1995 handed dictatorial control of CPS over to Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, we — the students, teachers, and other workers in Chicago's public schools — have been the victims of nothing less than a coup d’etat against democracy. Once it was in place in Chicago and its “narrative” (the miracle stories) firmly in place, mayoral dictatorship as a model was spread to large cities across the country by outfits like the Business Roundtable with the help of lies published or broadcast in the major corporate media. Like New Orleans, Chicago’s public schools faced unique challenges, because of the intense concentration of economic poverty and racial segregation. Rather than face and solve those problems during one of the most prosperous times in the history of the USA, Chicago did the opposite: victim blaming and increasing the privileges of the already privileged.

The elimination of public schools through privatization in Chicago, 1995-2007

Chicago had more than 600 public schools when what we can the “Daley Dictatorship” began in 1995. Like New Orleans, the Daley Dictatorship immediately stripped democratic power from most black people — in a school system that was majority black. Protest was muted, and many leaders were bought off from the beginning, including a couple who became millionaires thanks to their collaboration with Daley’s plans.

Chicago’s public schools were declared a “failure” despite the fact that the majority of the city’s public schools were either muddling along or doing very well.

For those 100 - 200 public schools that were at “the bottom” when Daley took over, things were very bad, but not because of the schools. Vicious segregation and intense poverty were the main causes, and Daley’s dictatorship and the attacks on the poor (and on public service) the past dozen years have made things worse for poor children, not better. But the problems caused by class and racial discriminations were blamed on the schools and teachers, while a series of white administrators were placed in charge of the key positions in the $5 billion school system. Daley’s reforms have been a failure where the challenge was greatest: for the poorest children in Chicago. At the “bottom,” things have gotten worse and worse.

Most of the schools that were “failing” in 1995 are failing today. Those that are not “failing” have either been demolished, privatized, or turned over to a different class of students in gentrifying communities. Nothing in Chicago’s corporate “school reform” has helped the poorest kids in the densest ghettos. Everything Daley has done — from public housing “reform” to “welfare reform” to “school reform” — has hurt children, killing many of them. As long as those children were poor and (for the most part) black, Daley has gotten away with it. So we are threading a history of the Daley years across the lengthy book review that follows.

Media blackout on the facts and analysis

Third, as Klein says, we cannot change reality unless we first confront it and try to understand it. The vast media blackout on the truth about what’s been taking place is Chicago has been well-funded and consistent for more than a decade. Most Chicago public school teachers know nothing but the lies touting Mayor Daley’s “miracles.” While these lies will some day provide hundreds of lessons in the corrupt propaganda of power, today they are still alive and well. The realities of Chicago and CPS today have been reported more accurately in the pages of Substance than anywhere else. Naomi Klein’s book helps frame that reality in a context that may help us plan how to counterattack against the intense and so far successful planning being done by the ruling class. We’ll see over the next five years.

The following is the Introduction to “The Shock Doctrine.”



“Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw that the earth was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth. And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with the earth.” (Genesis 6:11, NRSV)

“Shock and Awe are actions that create fears, dangers, and destruction that are incomprehensible to the people at large, specific elements/sectors of the threat society, or the leadership. Nature in the form of tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, uncontrolled fires, famine, and disease can engender Shock and Awe.” (Shock and Awe: Achieving Rapid Dominance, the military doctrine for the U.S. war on Iraq).

“I met Jamar Perry in September 2005, at the big Red Cross shelter in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Dinner was being doled out by grinning young Scientologists, and he was standing in line. I had just been busted for talking to evacuees without a media escort and was now doing my best to blend in, a white Canadian in a sea of African-American Southerners. I dodged into the food line behind Perry and asked him to talk to me as if we were old friends, which he kindly did.

“Born and raised in New Orleans, he’d been out of the flooded city for a week. He looked about seventeen but told me he was twenty-three. He and his family had waited forever for the evacuation buses; when they didn’t arrive, they had walked out in the baking sun. Finally they ended up here, a sprawling convention center, normally home to pharmaceutical trade shows and “Capital City Carnage: The Ultimate in Steel Cage Fighting,” now jammed with two thousand cots and a mess of angry, exhausted people being patrolled by edgy National Guard soldiers just back from Iraq.

“The news racing around the shelter was that Richard Baker, a prominent Republican congressman from this city, had told a group of lobbyists, ‘We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God did.’ Joseph Canizaro, one of New Orleans’ wealthiest developers, had just expressed a similar sentiment: “I think we have a clean sheet to start again. And with that clean sheet we have some very big opportunities.’ All that week, the Louisiana State Legislature in Baton Rouge had bee crawling with corporate lobbyists helping to lock in those big opportunities: lower taxes, fewer regulations, cheaper workers and a ‘smaller, safer city’ — which in practice mean plans to level the public housing projects and replace them with condos. Hearing all the talk of ‘fresh starts’ and ‘clean sheets,’ you could almost forget the toxic stew of rubble, chemical outflows and human remains just a few miles down the highway.

“Over a the shelter, Jamar could think of nothing else. ‘I really don’t see it as cleaning up the city. What I see is that a lot of people got killed uptown. People who shouldn’t have died.’

“He was speaking quietly, but an older man in line in front of us overheard and whipped around. ‘What is wrong with these people in Baton Rouge? This isn’t an opportunity. It’s a goddamned tragedy. Are they blind?’

“A mother with two kids chimed in. ‘No, they’re not blind, they’re evil. They see just fine.’

“One of those who saw opportunity in the floodwaters of New Orleans was Milton Friedman, grand guru of the movement for unfettered capitalism and the man credited with writing the rulebook for the contemporary, hypermobile global economy. Ninety-three years old and in failing health, ‘Uncle Miltie,’ as he was known to his followers, nonetheless found the strength to write an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal three months after the levees broke. ‘Most New Orleans schools are in ruins,’ Friedman observed, ‘as are the homes of the children who have attended them. The children are now scattered all over the country. This is a tragedy. It is also an opportunity to radically reform the educational system.

“Friedman’s radical idea was that instead of spending a portion of the billions of dollar in reconstruction money on rebuilding and improving New Orleans’ existing public school system, the government should provide families with vouchers, which they could spend at private institutions, many run at a profit, that would be subsidized by the state. It was crucial, Friedman wrote, that this fundamental change not be a stopgap but rather a ‘permanent reform.’

“A network of right-wing think tanks seized on Friedman’s proposal and descended on the city after the storm. The administration of George W. Bush backed up their plans with tens of millions of dollars to convert New Orleans schools into ‘charter schools.’ Publicly funded institutions run by private entities according to their own rules. Charter schools are deeply polarizing in the United States, and nowhere more so than in New Orleans, where they are seen by many African American parents as a way of reversing the gains of the civil rights movement, which guaranteed all children the same standard of education. For Milton Friedman, however, the entire concept of a state-run school system reeked of socialism. Ion his view, the state’s sole functions were ‘to protect our freedoms both from the enemies outside our gates and from our fellow-citizens: to preserve law and order, to enforce private contracts, to foster competitive markets.’ In other words, to supply the police and the soldiers — anything else, including providing free education, was an unfair interference in the market.

“In sharp contrast to the glacial pace with which the levees were repaired and the electricity grid was brought back online, the auctioning off of New Orleans’ school system took place with military speed and precision. Within nineteen months, with most of the city’s poor residents still in exile, New Orleans’ public school system had been almost completely replaced by privately run charter schools. Before Hurricane Katrina, the school board had run 123 public schools; now there were 31. New Orleans teachers used to be represented by a strong union; now the union’s contract had been shredded and its forty-seven hundred members had all been fired. Some of the younger teachers were rehired for the charters, at reduced salaries; most were not.

“New Orleans was now, according to The New York Times, ‘the nation’s preeminent laboratory for the widespread use of charter schools,’ while the American Enterprise Institute, a Friedmanite think tank, enthused that ‘Katrina accomplished in a day…what Louisiana school reformers couldn’t do after years of trying.’ Public school teachers, meanwhile, watching money allocated for the victims of the flood being diverted to erase a public system and replace it with a private one, were calling Friedman’s plan an ‘educational land grab.’

“I call these orchestrated raids on the public sphere in the wake of catastrophic events, combined with the treatment of disasters as exciting market opportunities, ‘disaster capitalism.’”


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