Cutting School

Privatization, Segregation, and the End of Public Education

A timely indictment of the corporate takeover of education and the privatization—and profitability—of separate and unequal schools, published at a critical time in the dismantling of public education in America

“Having grown up in families that are in the business world, we both believe that competition and choices make everyone better.”
—Betsy DeVos (with husband Dick DeVos), Donald Trump’s secretary of education

Public schools are among America’s greatest achievements in modern history, yet from the earliest days of tax-supported education—today a sector with an estimated budget of over half a billion dollars—there have been intractable tensions tied to race and poverty. Now, in an era characterized by levels of school segregation the country has not seen since the mid-twentieth century, cultural critic and American studies professor Noliwe Rooks provides a trenchant analysis of our separate and unequal schools and argues that profiting from our nation’s failure to provide a high-quality education to all children has become a very big business.

Cutting School deftly traces the financing of segregated education in America, from reconstruction through Brown v. Board of Education up to the current controversies around school choice, teacher quality, the school-to-prison pipeline, and more, to elucidate the course we are on today: the wholesale privatization of our schools. Rooks’s incisive critique breaks down the fraught landscape of “segrenomics,” showing how experimental solutions to the so-called achievement gaps—including charters, vouchers, and cyber schools—rely on, profit from, and ultimately exacerbate disturbingly high levels of racial and economic segregation under the guise of providing equal opportunity.

Rooks chronicles the making and unmaking of public education and the disastrous impact of funneling public dollars to private for-profit and nonprofit operations. As the infrastructure crumbles, a number of major U.S. cities are poised to permanently dismantle their public school systems—the very foundation of our multicultural democracy. Yet Rooks finds hope and promise in the inspired individuals and powerful movements fighting to save urban schools.

A comprehensive, compelling account of what’s truly at stake in the relentless push to deregulate and privatize, Cutting School is a cri de coeur for all of us to resist educational apartheid in America.


“An astounding look at America’s segregated school system, weaving together historical dynamics of race, class, and growing inequality into one concise and commanding story. Cutting School puts our schools at the center of the fight for a new commons.”
—Naomi Klein, author of No Is Not Enough and This Changes Everything
“Crisply written and meticulously researched, Cutting School is not only a compelling historical analysis but also a daring exposé of how the corporatization of public schools reproduces unequal, unjust educational opportunity. I cannot wait to share this book with my students and colleagues.”
—Prudence Carter, author of Closing the Opportunity Gap and dean of UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education
Cutting School is the book that I have been waiting for. Rooks introduces the term ‘segrenomics’ into our political lexicon and has provided the vibrant movement against corporate education reform a powerful tool imbued with political clarity, historical rigor and contemporary relevance. Read this book!”
—Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, author of From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation
“With this smart book and wise intervention Rooks will change the way you understand the challenges and possibilities ahead.”
—Bill Ayers, author of Demand the Impossible! and To Teach
“I threw the book across the room and paced the floor. This is an important work; hopefully it will make people mad enough to act.”
—Tayari Jones, author of An American Marriage
“A bold and groundbreaking work. . . . This timely book is essential reading not only for anyone who cares about the well-being of our children, but for all who care about the future of democracy and justice in America.”
—Danny Glover, actor and humanitarian
“A devastating and timely critique of the moral bankruptcy and racial double standards of the educational reform movement. Cutting School should transform the scholarly and activist conversation about privatization and public education just as Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow has done for the war on drugs and mass incarceration.”
—Khalil Gibran Muhammad, author of The Condemnation of Blackness
“A work that brilliantly connects history to the present. . . . A must-read for anyone interested in saving public education.”
—Angel Harris, author of Kids Don’t Want to Fail
“Rooks shrewdly documents the nation’s centuries-long failure to ‘safely’ educate black and brown children, from John D. Rockefeller’s and the General Education Board’s twentieth-century efforts to the twenty-first-century correlates promoted by the Wendy Kopps and the Mark Zuckerbergs. Thomas Jefferson’s ‘wolf of slavery’ haunts its pages. Don’t miss it.”
—Bob Moses, founder of the Algebra Project