Capitalizing on Disaster


Book by Kenneth J. Saltman; Paradigm: Boulder, 2007, 173 pp.

Charter schools. The destruction of New Orleans. The Asian tsunami. Gentrification. No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The invasion and occupation of Iraq. What do these all have in common? For Kenneth Saltman, they are illustrations of the latest phase of the neoliberal assault on the hard-won gains of people to ensure public education, housing, and public ownership over natural resources among other vital social services. Saltman’s book Capitalizing on Disaster explores these interconnections in the struggle over public education. For Saltman, natural catastrophes, acts of war and education policies can each provide a context to "set up public schools to be dismantled and made into investment opportunities."

Meticulously documented, the central focus of Saltman’s book is the privatization of Chicago’s public schools under the leadership of current Secretary of Education Arne Duncan while he was superintendent of Chicago Public Schools. As a professor at DePaul University in Chicago, Saltman has a personal stake in what is happening in that city. Saltman documents how the business sector’s Renaissance 2010 plan was picked up by local school districts and city elites in order to pave the way for gentrification and backdoor privatization of public education. Historical disinvestment in public housing and public education has become a perfect storm, setting them up for failure under the onerous mandate of NCLB. Saltman describes in detail how schools located in areas with prime real estate are unilaterally declared "failures" and privatized by stripping local community control over the schools, smashing unions, closing schools, and setting up new schools run for profit and non-profit charter corporations.

This "smash and grab" is hardly restricted to the U.S. Saltman details the rise and emergence of a little known defense contractor, Creative Associates International Inc. CAII has figured prominently in U.S. foreign policy projects, with contracts to train demobilized contras, prop up the Haiti coup government, and, more recently, to privatize Iraq’s public education system. Interestingly, CAII received its Iraq contract months before the U.S. invasion occurred, thus raising new doubts about the claim that the U.S. did not plan for the occupation. Saltman’s analysis of the U.S. neoliberal model being applied to education is the first to go beyond a focus on Iraq’s oil and agriculture sectors, both of which have gotten nearly all the attention. By doing so, Saltman convincingly confirms David Harvey’s premise in A Brief History of Neoliberalism that neoliberalism is also a cultural, as well as economic, project. As a cultural project, it seeks to capture and reform education, media, and other ideological institutions in order to shift public beliefs, norms, and values so that the hegemony of the market over every aspect of life is ultimately seen as commonplace and unquestioned.

After 30 years of vicious assaults, neoliberalism has hopefully made fewer inroads into public education, because it has been defended so adamantly by students, faculty, staff, and families from across the political spectrum. This struggle, Saltman insists, must mean that "public education remains a crucial site and stake of struggle for critical forms of public democracy" from below.


Robert Ovetz is an adjunct professor at two California community colleges. He is one of the organizers against budget cuts and neoliberal attacks at these colleges.