Jason Stanford: Illinois governor sees Katrina as success at destroying schools

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Jason Stanford
August 21, 2015

New rule: No wishing for a Katrina to hit your city so you can dismantle public schools. A columnist was forced to apologize after she wrote, “I find myself wishing for a storm in Chicago—an unpredictable, haughty, devastating swirl of fury.” As dumb as that was, that columnist wasn’t the first to wish for another Katrina.

At a charter schools conference in 2011, the chairman of a private equity firm said the political upside of Hurricane Katrina was that they could remake the New Orleans public school system in their corporate image without any political opposition. This was, of course, because so many of the teachers, administrators and parents who might oppose privatizing the public school system had either drowned or escaped with their lives.

Musing about the political upside of a tragedy back in 2011 would only be in awful taste if he were just a businessman. Likely, no one would care. But the man who said that is no longer with the private equity firm. His name is Bruce Rauner. Now he is governor of Illinois.

“Politically, they didn’t have to blow up the system, the hurricane blew up the system, and they could start fresh,” he said. “That’s a political … it’s a tragedy, but it’s a political, one of the few bright spots of that horrible event, where they didn’t have the political fight.”

In the video, you can see him pause before allowing, “It’s a tragedy,” before extolling “one of the few bright spots” of a hurricane that killed 1,577 people in Louisiana. If only they had died knowing their deaths, along with evacuations of their neighbors, would make it easier to dismantle the neighborhood public schools.

This is, at the very least, rhetorically dumb. It’s the kind of thing that people hire lawyers and consultants to help them apologize for because “I’m sorry” doesn’t quite cut it.

By the same logic, one of the few bright spots of the Holocaust is that Germany was left with a terrific highway system and a vibrant auto industry. And while of course the Trail of Tears is a tragedy—tsk, tsk—at least it inspired a song by John Denver and a whole album by Billy Ray Cyrus. And if you can’t find an upside to the Josef Stalin’s Great Purge of 1936-1938, well then you’re probably not looking hard enough.

To wish, as Chicago Tribune columnist Kristen McQueary did, that a cataclysmic event would scatter your enemies like a selective Etch A Sketch is distasteful. To pray “for a storm. OK, a figurative storm, something that will prompt a rebirth,” as she did, is to prioritize your political beliefs over the right of other people to exist even as opposition.

It might be different if New Orleans had truly “fixed” public schools. If children in New Orleans were attending schools in a reformed utopia of opportunity, then we could at least talk about silver linings.

But the results are disappointing. Since Katrina, New Orleans’ private charter school district has not turned around a single failing school. In fact, the district stopped publishing the grades the charter schools received and instead focused on percentage improvements. By their own original standards, the experiment has failed, but they keep moving the goalposts to create the facade of success.

Rauner would like to do the same thing in Chicago, hence the nauseating Katrina nostalgia. Rauner has personally contributed $2.5 million to a network of charter schools that receives both direct taxpayer support ($91.1 million in 2013 in city, state, and federal taxes) as well as taxpayer-supported loans.

And he’s trying to create a fiscal Katrina with the Chicago public schools by bailing out their underfunded pension in exchange for teachers giving up their collective bargaining rights and freezing property taxes. This will likely force the public schools into bankruptcy, allowing Rauner to do what he wants without opposition.

The scheme is working out exactly like he wished it would back in 2011 when he spoke glowingly about starting fresh after a hurricane. It makes you wonder, doesn’t it, when people who want to reform our schools say things that are so dumb you stop breathing?

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