Nearly every day, it seems, brings a new headline about failing public schools and the reform du jour that will turn them around. Typically, these involve some degree of privatization (e.g., vouchers, scholarship tax credits, etc.) or pseudo-privatization (e.g., charter schools, outsourcing essential functions of the public system to private corporations, etc.). In Cutting School: Privatization, Segregation, and the End of Public Education, Noliwe Rooks shines a light on the dark underbelly of American education policy, exposing the many ways in which an unequal system is maintained and exploited by those in pursuit of profit. Rooks, who serves as Professor and director of the American Studies program at Cornell University, has previously written about the economics of education in White Money/Black Power: African American Studies and the Crises of Race in Higher Education (2007).
As a work of scholarship, Cutting School leaves much to be desired. Rooks’s narrative is thinly sourced, and one wonders about the extent to which she may over-extrapolate from her evidence. At times, her research even verges on careless. For instance, she writes, “At the 91st Annual National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Convention held in 2000, President George W. Bush announced what would almost amount to a declaration of war on unequal education and explained the necessity of using standardized tests as a primary tool in the nation’s arsenal” (p. 190). This, of course, was the speech in which Bush promised to address what he called “the soft bigotry of lowered expectations.” Only one problem: Bush gave that speech in July 2000, several months before his election. When he gave that speech, he was not President Bush, but Candidate Bush. By this simple mistake of chronology, Rooks commits three errors in one: she ignores the political aims inherent in the speech, ascribes to Bush a power to direct federal education policy that he did not yet have, and gives the speech more importance than it should perhaps receive.
Whatever its scholarly shortcomings, Cutting School deserves a wide audience as a muckraking exposé. It is clear that contemporary issues are at the fore of Rooks’s mind, and the writing gains a certain verve when addressing present-day concerns that it lacks when she offers historical perspective. Although the specialist in education policy or the history of education might not find much new here, the engaged citizen or parent concerned about why the neighborhood school is being shuttered certainly will. Rooks brings attention to important but under-acknowledged injustices, and her chapter on “Stealing School” is particularly eye-opening. In that chapter, she describes the increasing prosecutions of parents who enroll their children in public school districts other than the one in which they reside. She tells of one family that moved mid-year but continued to take their daughter to the same school. Once discovered, the school district accused the parents of “stealing” $10,000—the per-pupil cost for the year. When all was said and done, the parents’ desire to not disrupt their daughter’s education mid-year cost them a guilty plea and more than $80,000, including legal fees (p. 161). In stark contrast to the vigorous prosecution of well-meaning parents, Rooks notes a variety of charter school networks and virtual schools who receive millions in taxpayer funds but little oversight. According to Rooks, these organizations generally target the most vulnerable student populations with the promise of closing the “achievement gap” but often have little to show for the largesse they receive.
I am not entirely convinced by made by Rooks (and many others) that neoliberals seek to destroy public education. In fact, this cuts against her astute observations that it is quite profitable, and the great contribution of this book is that it reveals the parasitic scheme through which profiteers socialize their risks while privatizing rewards. It will fall to those who build on Rooks’s work to distinguish more clearly between the ideologues who oppose what they perceive as wasteful, “socialistic” education and the ethically-challenged capitalists who exploit it. Still, in her conceptualization of “segrenomics,” Rooks has given scholars and journalists alike a foothold on a topic worthy of further elaboration.