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Saltman, Kenneth J. (2007). Capitalizing on Disaster: Taking and Breaking Public Schools. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers

Pp. 176         ISBN 1594513813

Reviewed by David Gabbard
East Carolina University
Sheila Macrine
Montclair State University

October 15, 2008

Kenneth J. Saltman’s new book, Capitalizing on Disaster: Taking and Breaking Public Schools (2007), published by Paradigm, breaks new ground in challenging and critiquing corporate involvement in schooling and education, as he dissects the most powerful educational reforms of today, and highlights their relationship to the rapid rise of powerful think tanks and the new brand of edu-business groups. Over the past several decades, there has been a strong movement towards the privatization of public schooling through business ventures. While at the beginning of the millennium, this privatization project looked like it was on its way out, as both the Edison Schools and Knowledge Universe floundered. Unfortunately, privatization is back and stronger than ever!

Criticisms of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) as more than a well-intended, but under-funded attempt to overcome the “soft bigotry of low expectations” and improve American education have finally reached the mainstream media. Claudia Wallis opens her article in the June 8, 2008 issue of Time magazine by stating what has long been obvious to many of us:

There was always something slightly insane about No Child Left Behind. . . . For one thing, in the view of many educators, the law's 2014 goal — which calls for all public school students in grades 4 through 8 to be achieving on grade level in reading and math — is something no educational system anywhere on earth has ever accomplished. Even more unrealistic: every kid (except for 3% with serious handicaps or other issues) is supposed to be achieving on grade level every year, climbing in lockstep up an ever more challenging ladder. This flies in the face of all sorts of research showing that children start off in different places academically and grow at different rates. (Wallis,   2008).

In part, it was this insanity of NCLB that led many of us to insist, as Wallis puts it, “that No Child Left Behind was nothing more than a cynical plan to destroy American faith in public education and open the way to vouchers and school choice.” (Wallis, 2008).

Citing Susan Neuman, who served as Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education during George W. Bush’s first term, Wallis’s reportage substantiates those criticisms.  While separating herself, Bush, and former Secretary of Education Rod Paige from this view, “there were others in the department, according to Neuman, who saw NCLB as a Trojan horse for the choice agenda — a way to expose the failure of public education and ‘blow it up a bit,’ she says. ‘There were a number of people pushing hard for market forces and privatization.’” (Wallis, 2008)

For all of its merits, Wallis’s reportage would lead the average citizen to believe that cooler heads have prevailed within the U.S. Department of Education, that Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings has helped insulate our system of public education from those wishing to “blow it up.” Taking Neuman’s account of things at face value, Wallis creates the impression that Spellings has rescued public schools from those wishing to capitalize on its destruction through privatization by moving NCLB toward a growth model “instead of demanding lockstep, grade-level achievement.” In this sense, Wallis’s reportage perpetuates the mainstream media’s persistent lack of deep-level, investigative journalism so necessary to our civic life and active democratic decision-making. As Cornel West has argued,

While an essential mission of the news organizations in a democracy should be to expose the lies and manipulations of our political and economic leaders – and surely many media watchdogs devote themselves to that task – too much of what passes for news today is really a form of entertainment. So many shows follow a crude formula for providing titillating coverage that masks itself as news. (West,  2004, p. 36).

In Capitalizing on Disaster: Taking and Breaking Public Schools, Saltman offers us an excellent example of what a more civically responsible brand of journalism would look like while at the same time offering a theoretically astute, nuanced, and accessible sociological analysis of the contemporary state of public schooling.

Kenneth J. Saltman

On matters of “market forces and privatization” in education, no one has focused more sustained critical scrutiny than Saltman. Capitalizing on Disaster, his latest single-authored book, follows on the heels of his Edison Schools: Corporate Schooling and the Assault on Public Education (2005), Strange Love: Or How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Market (2002, co-authored with Robin Truth Goodman), and Collateral Damage: Corporatizing Public Schools – A Threat to Democracy (2000). He has also edited or co-edited works dealing with the same themes, including Schooling and the Politics of Disaster (2007) and Education As Enforcement: The Militarization and Corporatization of Schools (2003). Moreover, Saltman has been following the corporatist assault on public education for nearly a decade.

While Wallis demonstrates what West identifies and critiques as the mainstream media’s sentimental nihilism – the willingness “to sidestep or even bludgeon the truth or unpleasant and unpopular facts and stories, in order to provide an emotionally satisfying show” (West, 2004). Capitalizing on Disaster sidesteps nothing. To the contrary, Saltman takes great care to document three different scenarios revealing how, even while efforts to promote privatization through various voucher plans and charter schools have suffered serious setbacks, “overt attempts to privatize and commercialize public schools continue at an alarming rate” and in “a new form that coheres with what [Naomi] Klein terms ‘disaster capitalism’ and what David Harvey describes as ‘accumulation by dispossession.’” (p. 1)  Therein lies the greatest strength of Saltman’s latest offering.

Responding to Saltman’s book, Professor Gerald Bracey poses the question, “What do Hurricane Katrina and the Iraq War have in common? They both represent ‘golden opportunities’ to replace destroyed public school systems with private corporations… Kenneth Saltman clearly shows in his angry and powerful new book, while these two examples are exceptional situations, they characterize the right’s modus operandi for radical social engineering--the public to private conversion--of the public schools.”  (Bracey,  2008).  

Capitalizing on Disaster offers a compelling addition to the literature of the role that schooling plays in reproducing social relations for capital.  Saltman explains that in order for continued economic growth the private sector is increasingly pillaging the public sector including public schooling.  However, this is being done specifically towards populations rendered redundant in an increasingly dual economy. Specifically poor and working class public schools are targeted for privatization and commodification to make these students into an economic opportunity while the schools in privileged communities retain the role of turning out leaders and workers for the economy.  The discussion is extremely valuable for situating these educational trends within broader national and global economic, political, and cultural transformations. 

Capitalizing on Disaster is especially relevant in light of the new face of educational privatization which is replacing public schooling with educational management organizations (EMOs), vouchers, and charter schools at an alarming rate. In both disaster and non-disaster areas, officials designate schools as failed in order to justify replacement with new, unproven models. Saltman examines how privatization policies such as No Child Left Behind are designed to deregulate schools, favoring business while undermining public oversight. Examining current policies in New Orleans, Chicago, and Iraq, Capitalizing on Disaster shows how the struggle for public schooling is essential to the struggle for a truly democratic society.

Saltman’s mission,  in this book, focuses on documenting three examples of how disaster becomes big business, particularly when destruction creates opportunities to profit from education. In the first example, he points to how business has capitalized on a natural disaster, Hurricane Katrina, to promote the privatization agenda in New Orleans. In the second example, he documents how a man-made disaster, war, has created vast for-profit educational venture in Iraq. Finally, Saltman examines how Chicago’s Renaissance 2010 has harnessed the most destructive powers of NCLB and tied them to other equally destructive initiatives to create a broader neoliberal agenda for gentrifying the city.

Here, Saltman takes a cue from Naomi Klein’s (2007) notion of the rise in predatory form of disaster capitalism that uses “the desperation and fear created by catastrophe to engage in radical social and economic engineering. And on this front, the reconstruction industry works so quickly and efficiently that the privatizations and land grabs are usually locked in before the local population knows what hit them” to introduce his first chapter. 

Smash and Grab: Schooling in Disaster Capitalism

Eviscerating Neuman’s suggestion that Margaret Spellings has rescued schools from those intent on privatizing them, Chapter One discloses the U.S. Department of Education’s role in taking advantage of the destruction of New Orleans and other communities along the Gulf Coast to impose what Saltman characterizes as “the largest-ever school voucher experiment for the region and nation.” (p. 5)  Thanks to the catastrophic effects of Katrina, particularly in the poverty-stricken sections of the city such as the lower 9th Ward, this experiment required no special effort to “blow up” the public schools before proceeding. Saltman does point out, however, just prior to the storm the Louisiana state legislature had defeated a bill that would have provided publicly funded vouchers to support private and religious schools. In the wake of Katrina, supporters of that legislation and other advocates of privatization began echoing the same meme: the destruction of New Orleans schools presented a new “golden opportunity” to advance their agenda; the realization of a publicly funded voucher scheme would be a “silver lining” in the otherwise dark cloud that had descended on the city and region.

What Saltman presciently identifies in Capitalizing on Disaster is clearly intensifying.  Just this past week, New York Times reporter Paul Tough (2008) wrote that New Orleans Gov. Bobby Jindal, will pay for nearly 900 New Orleans elementary-school students to attend private and parochial schools this year. But that the more significant lever of change in this troubled city is the charters — schools that get public money and are overseen by a government entity but are managed by an independent board. In New Orleans, Gov. Bobby Jindal, the state education superintendent Pastorek, and New Orleans School Superintendent Paul Vallas all say they expect charters to expand their presence in the district, to a point where 75 percent or even 90 percent of the city’s schools are charters.  So over the long haul these management enterprises like Recovery School District (R.S.D.) become an instrument that evaluates existing schools, supports existing schools, recommends the closure of schools and recommends the best operator to come in and take over, or the best operator to come in place of that school. As the head of RSD, Gary Robichaux, explains, “We put people in business, and we take people out of business.”  (Tough,  2008).

C.A.I., Inc: Corporate Schooling and Democracy Promotion in Iraq

Speaking to the expanding role of for-profit corporations in enacting right-wing foreign policy and exporting right-wing domestic educational policy overseas, the second chapter illustrates how a  U.S. company called Creative Associates International, Incorporated (CAII), made millions on no-bid contracts while engaging in educational rebuilding that includes fostering the educational privatization agenda. Saltman argues that the human-made disaster of the Iraq war has been a vast moneymaking opportunity not only for companies such as Halliburton and Bechtel but also for educational profiteers. More significantly, he traces the history of CAII to reveal a marked pattern of not only profiteering from its associations with government agencies but also exporting a corporate model of schooling and education that undermines the democratic potential of schools by teaching people to understand themselves as atomized workers and consumers who should seek to advance their own economic self-interest by aligning those interests with the interests of the corporations that employ them. In this sense, CAII’s educational initiatives overseas teach people to equate and confuse capitalism’s economic individualism with the political liberty and active civic engagement of democratic governance.

Renaissance 2010 and NCLB: Breaking and Taking Schools and Communities

In this third chapter, Saltman examines how Chicago’s Renaissance 2010 essentially written by the Commercial Club of Chicago(a civic improvement club that also promotes Chicago's economic development) and being implemented by the Chicago Public Schools where 85% of its students are poor and nonwhite, is planning to close 100 public schools and then reopen them as for-profit and non-profit charter schools, contract schools and magnet schools, bypassing the important district regulations.  Saltman adds that critics of the plan view it as “urban cleansing” that locks out local residents.  Against this back drop Saltman takes on No Child Left Behind which he writes sets schools up for failure by making it impossible demands for continual improvement.

Saltman also elaborates on the privatization agenda of Renaissance 2010 by showing how it is being pushed by the longstanding and concerted efforts of business groups as well as the neoliberal ideology they embrace.  He also shows how Renaissance 2010 belies a racialized economic grab to profit from public housing and public schooling and to seize real estate-public school closings and reopenings are a tool in displacing the poor and taking land.  In addition he illustrates how renaissance 2010 also exemplifies a shift in educational and political governance in a highly undemocratic direction.


Putting a fine point on it this issue, Saltman contends that right wing movements of capitalizing on disaster   should not be exclusively understood as a coordinated effort of rich rightists and ideologues (though in part this conclusion is unavoidable when faced with the evidence presented herein). This movement, he goes on to say, must be understood in relation to the broader political, ideological, and cultural formations most prevalent at the moment-namely neoliberalism and neo-conservativism.  He urges that this rightwing movement imperils the development of public schools as crucial sites for engaged critical democracy while undermining the public purposes of public education and amassing vast profits for few and even furthering U.S. foreign policy agendas. Saltman concludes by suggesting a number of hopeful strategies for strengthening public schools as part of an effort to build a public and critical form of democracy.

 As a result, Saltman continues making his mark as one of most articulate critics of contemporary education policy by providing rigorous analysis and deep theoretical insights without losing his readership with unnecessary jargon.Capitalizing on Disaster is essential reading for scholars who want to understand the most recent trends of educational reform but also lends itself as a classroom text.  It would by complemented in a teacher education course by Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine and David Harvey’s A Brief History of Neoliberalism to comprehend and contest the radical social transformations going inside and outside education.

 Perhaps more than in any of his previous works, Capitalizing on Disaster demonstrates that the “cynical plan to destroy American faith in public education and open the way to vouchers and school choice” did not begin and, in all likelihood, will not end with NCLB, but represents merely one component of the far broader and deeper agenda of neoliberalism.


Bracey, G ( 2008). Backmatter, Capitalizing on Disaster, by Ken Saltman. Paradigm Publishers.

Harvey, D.  (2005). Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford University Press.

Klein, Naomi. (2007). The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. NY: Metropolitan Books.

Tough, P., (2008). A Teachable Moment. The New York Times, August 17, 2008. Retrieved August 20, 2008 from

Wallis, C. (2008). No Child Left Behind: Doomed to Fail?, Time Magazine, June 8, 2008. Retrieved August 20, 2008 from,8599,1812758,00.html

West, C. (2004). Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight Against Imperialism. (New York, Penguin).

About The Reviewers

David Gabbard, PhD
East Carolina University

David Gabbard has earned national and international recognition for his work in critical educational policy studies and democratic educational theory. 

David Gabbard
Along with five published books, his record of scholarly production includes over fifty articles and book chapters. The first edition of his Knowledge and Power in Global Economy: Politics and the Rhetoric of School Reform received the Critic’s Choice Award from the American Educational Studies Association in 2001.  Professor Gabbard has also worked with Ken Saltman (DePaul University) in the production of  Education as Enforcement: The Militarization and Corporatization of Schools , E. Wayne Ross (University of British Columbia) in producing Defending Public Schools: Education Under the Security State and Alain Beaulieu (University of Sudbury) in co-editing Michel Foucault and Power Today.  Professor Gabbard also co-founded and co-edits Public Resistance: An Academic Journal to Confront the Lies of the Right with Karen Anijar-Appleton (Arizona State University). He currently serves as Program Coordinator for the Marxian Analysis of Society, Schools, and EducationSIG of the American Educational Research Association

Sheila Macrine, PhD
Montclair State University

Sheila Macrine is a professor of teacher education.

Sheila Macrine
She has been a school psychologist and a reading specialist. Her research focuses on connecting the cultural, political, institutional and feminist contexts of institutional and personal contexts of pedagogy and learning theory, particularly as they relate the social imagination and progressive democratic education. These issues are examined on many levels including educational theory and pedagogy; reform and policy; and classroom teaching. She is currently studying political and cultural forces at work in national education policy and is also studying beliefs systems among early childhood and elementary teachers.

Copyright is retained by the first or sole author, who grants right of first publication to the Education Review.

Editors: Gene V Glass, Kate Corby, Gustavo Fischman

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