(This is a slightly revised version of my post that originally appeared on Naomi Klein’s site on Oct. 2 — s.p.)
By Sue Peters – October 2nd, 2010

When I saw the roster of invited guests for NBC’s week-long “Education Nation summit” that began Sept. 26, I sensed that viewers would not be getting a fair cross-section of perspectives. The “top leaders in education” that NBC rounded up primarily included CEOs (from AOL, State Farm, Netflix, Teach for America, Inc.), politicians, charter school operators, and representatives from the ed reform-pushing foundations of billionaires Bill Gates and Eli Broad.

Where were the panels of parents? The panels of unscripted teachers?

In her overview of NBC’s corporate, one-sided reform-fest, “Education Indoctrination,” Leonie Haimson, founder of Class Size Matters and member of Parents Across America (PAA), wrote: “Indeed, the vast majority of panelists appear to have been pre-selected by the Gates and Broad Foundations, Education Nation’s co-sponsors, who by spending billions have been able to impose their rigid prescriptions on the nation’s urban public schools.”

This eloquent post by Bronx teacher Stephen Lazar confirmed my worst suspicions: “Education Nation: I Should Have Known Better,” as well as this summary by professor and author Marc Bousquet: “Education Nation: Policy Summit or Puppet Show?”

Parents protested and asked for a seat at the table. Some of us asked for NBC to include genuine national experts on education like Dr. Diane Ravitch and Professor Yong Zhao. Ignored, some parents turned to NBC’s “Education Nation” Facebook page and posted criticisms there. NBC then censored them and deleted those comments.

So when NBC announced the title of its Tuesday Sept. 28 segment, a number of us were rendered speechless: “The Lessons of New Orleans: Does Education Need a Katrina?”

From: David Nurnberg

Date: September 25, 2010 11:05:30 AM EDT
Subject: NBC News – Special Education Nation Summit Session with Brian Williams

Dear Friends,

We are excited to share with you the details for a very special Education Nation panel discussion with Brian Williams titled, “The Lessons of New Orleans: Does Education Need a Katrina?” At the fifth anniversary of Katrina, the rebuilt New Orleans school district is an incredible study in the power of resilience and the possibility of starting anew. This panel will examine the advantages to the New Orleans school district of starting over post-Katrina, and whether the lessons learned there can be applied across the country

Participants include Scott Cowen (President, Tulane University); Doris Hicks (Principal and CEO, Dr. King Charter School); Mitch Landrieu (Mayor, New Orleans); Garland Robinette (Host, “The Think Tank,” WWL); and Paul Vallas (Superintendent, Recovery School District of Louisiana). This panel will take place Tuesday, September 28 at 10:05AM.

This was an outrageous and offensive question on a number of levels. For starters, thousands of people died as a result of Hurricane Katrina. Schools, homes, entire communities were destroyed. So what was NBC suggesting?

Force crisis on every school district in the nation? ‘Destroy the village to save the village’?

For me, Naomi Klein’s “The Shock Doctrine (The Rise of Disaster Capitalism)” immediately came to mind. Those of us in the ‘corporate ed reform Resistance’ movement frequently cite the first chapter of Klein’s book as an example of shameless private profiteering in times of real or fabricated crisis, and a case study of what we don’t want done to our school districts.

Klein begins her 2007 book by outlining how the private profiteers swooped into the Katrina-ravaged city of New Orleans and took over the public schools: “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 it ran just 4. Before that storm, there had been 7 charter schools in the city; now there were 31. New Orleans teachers used to be represented by a strong union; now the union’s contract has been shredded, and its forty-seven hundred members had all been fired. Some of the younger teachers were rehired by the charters, at reduced salaries; most were not.”

“What is wrong with these people in Baton Rouge?” one man rightly asks in Klein’s book. “This isn’t an opportunity. It’s a goddamned tragedy. Are they blind?”

Indeed, what is wrong with these people — in the ed reform inner circle and their fawning media?

What is wrong is they are applying free-market capitalist values and tactics where they have no business being. Cheering on the sacking of New Orleans’ public school system, observed Klein, was free-market guru Milton Friedman, who wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal only three months after Katrina struck, saying: “Most New Orleans schools are in ruins, 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.”

The very idea that all schools in the nation should be made to suffer a catastrophic event in order to be rebuilt by private interests is a vile and thoughtless concept.

A number of members of Parents Across America, the grassroots public education advocacy group to which I belong, wrote to NBC and protested this title and suggestion. Said South Florida parent-activist Rita Solnet: “I am a non union member, non teacher, non partisan parent and business woman who never lived in New Orleans. I find the title of the panel to be distasteful and disgraceful and I find the content of the session planned to be disproportionate in perspectives.”

Apparently these efforts shamed NBC into changing the title (to “Lessons in education from post-Katrina New Orleans”) – but not the mindset. After all, the head of our public school system, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, himself, said essentially the same thing earlier this year: “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. (…).”

In fact, the results out of New Orleans are mixed. While the mainstream media like to paint the private charter takeover of New Orleans’ schools as a success story, others strongly disagree, and point to a number of factors that are not always mentioned, including the fact that a group of parents has filed a complaint with the Louisiana Department of Education claiming that charter schools fail to serve special needs children. Also, the schools’ rising test scores post-Katrina were going up even before the shock treatment – the charter school principal on NBC’s panel even pointed this out.

Moreover, as Steve Koss on the NYC Public School Parents Blog aptly observed in his post “Why Is There Suddenly An Education ‘Crisis’?,” and Nicholas Lehman, in his balanced review of “Waiting for Superman” in the New Yorker, we are being sold a lie about public education. We are being told it is a disaster. It isn’t.

There are good schools in the system serving kids well. My own children have been in public schools for the past six years. There are also inequities among schools that need to be addressed. But no one should be talking about throwing out the good with the bad. That is simply ludicrous. But that is what this mindset suggests.

This crisis scenario is the same story we have been told about the state of Social Security, and what do you know? The storytellers’ solution to that ‘crisis’ was the same: Privatize it. (Thank god we didn’t—if placed in the trust of Wall Street, much of it would have been wiped out in this economy.)

All my life, public schools have been holding bake sales to pay for basics, teachers have been buying class supplies, and the “great day” longed for in that classic bumper sticker remains elusive: “It will be a great day when our schools get all the money they need and the Air Force has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber.”

Reform after reform churns through our schools, imposed on our kids. Teachers grit their teeth, adjust to the latest “new math” or standardization fad, until it becomes discredited or passé and the next one comes along.

This time is different, though: the reformers seem to want nothing less than catastrophe and absolutes, and if they don’t occur naturally like Katrina, the ed reformers are willing to create disaster themselves — mass firings of teachers in D.C. by School Chancellor Michelle Rhee (though she may be out of a job soon herself); the firing of the entire staff of a high school in Central Falls, R.I.; perfectly good principals fired — sacrificed because President Bush’s malingering No Child Left Behind policy demands that someone pay if a school isn’t providing the expected test scores. The reformers also like to vilify teachers under the guise of “accountability.” In at least one terrible case, it is clear the “teacher effectiveness” storm-troopers have gone too far.

I naively assumed that those who practice the shock doctrine of disaster capitalism would at least hide the fact that they trafficked in such a dark art. NBC’s blatant promotion of the tactic just shows how far down we’ve sunk ethically as a nation, when large-scale human misery and disaster is someone’s blithe recipe for a cure.

Shame on NBC.

Sue Peters is the co-editor of the Seattle Education 2010 blog, and a founding member of Parents Across America (PAA). Her children attend public school in Seattle.