Steven Brill will be speaking Tuesday, November 1, at the Seattle Public Library downtown. For more information, click here.
As the title suggests, this book about public education in America is explained as a two-sided war. On one side stands America’s students, entrepreneurial and moneyed professionals, enlightened elected officials, and amazingly idealistic and energetic teachers. The other side is a bureaucratic monstrosity filled with paper-pushers, taciturn union officials, lazy teachers, and an intransigent and backward worldview.
In “Class Warfare,” Steven Brill, a ridiculously successful journalist and entrepreneur (he founded Court TV!), attempts to capture the origins, leaders, and timeline of the modern public education reform movement. The Book is filled with the usual suspects. The list includes, but is not limited to, Michelle Rhee, Joel Klein, Wendy Kopp (the founder of Teach For America), Bill Gates, Eva Moskowitz, Robert Gordon, Rupert Murdoch, Steven Brill, and, finally, Beelzebub herself, Randi Weingarten. Weingarten must truly despise this book.
I’m only half joking by referring to her as Beelzebub. Brill explains in the book that he spent more time talking to Weingarten while writing this book than any of the other characters that appear on its pages. I imagine that’s part of his rationalization for painting her as the symbol for what is wrong with public education in America.
In 1999, Eva Moskowitz, a Johns Hopkins PhD-holder, a former professor at Vanderbilt, and an unrelenting critic of New York City public schools, won a seat on NYC’s City Council. By 2002 she had become the chair of the Council’s education committee. Just a year later, she decided to openly challenge Weingarten in the public sphere. She challenged Weingarten on her union’s contracts with the City and came out swinging, orchestrating testimony, lambasting the union head for protecting her interests – students be damned – , and generally being a “pain in the ass.” Weingarten punted, deciding to blame poor management for the City’s struggles and refusing to give in to a single point Moskowitz made. She survived, but barely. And so Weingarten decided to get even. Less than two years later, with Moskowitz running for Borough president, Weingarten used her union’s largesse to orchestrate a nasty campaign against her – on the radio, on sidewalks, and through phone calls – highlighted by a ridiculous charge that Moskowitz was opposed to anti-sweatshop laws. Moskowitz lost, big time, and the reader is left to imagine the grin on the face of a cruel and unwavering Weingarten while she laughs chillingly in a dark basement.
Brilliantly, in more than 80 tidy chapters, Brill contrasts “rubber rooms” and powerful, anti-reform union officials – Weingarten being numero uno – with a cast of characters that inspire hope.
Brill’s greatest show of persuasion is by continually showing his reader the diverse professionals behind the education reform movement. As diverse as his cast of characters are, they all have one thing in common: remarkable success. Whether in business, technology, society, or politics, Brill does a convincing and charming job of painting education reform as the side of winners. In other words, if his reader happens to be opposed to charters or vouchers, bonus pay or strict teacher evaluations, or any of the other hallmarks of education reformers, than chances are, that reader is dumb. Is it possible to second-guess Bill Gates? Or Michelle Rhee or her fiancé, and Mayor of Sacramento, Kevin Johnson?
The villians in Warfare, like Weingarten, are interested in protecting the status quo of public education. Nearly every chapter of the book makes the reader wonder what there is to protect? One passage in particular showcases the mindset of the status quo.
During a public hearing over co-location of a traditional public school and a NYC charter school, Brill brings a little girl named Tiana and her mother Bernice into the good versus evil story-arch. Tiana gets up and grabs the microphone to address the packed auditorium: “My name is Tiana Wynn, and at my Harlem Success school they teach us to share and care about each other. Why can’t you?” she asks the crowd, to cheers from one side and silence from the other (good versus evil, again). Then, Brill quotes Tiana’s mother: “I’ve got one child in a charter and have had two in public schools…there’s no comparison. Tiana is in kindergarten and already reading books and writing stories.” At that point, Brill introduces the reader to New York state senator Bill Perkins, who proceeds to make an ass of himself: “[p]eople have to start to think about what a racket charters are…and how a lot of rich people are making money off of them…[w]e have to focus on improving the public schools for everyone. Choice creates a diversion. It divides the community.”
Brill’s book shows, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the incredible power of the NEA and the AFT is systematically declining. The only hope the status quo has is democratic politicians whose coffers are filled by union activists (Bill Perkins). Eventually, though, even those elected officials will quietly recede from a truly indefensible position. Change is coming, no doubt about it.
Interestingly, while reading this book, I was alerted to three news items. First, the Wall Street Journal editorial page published another pro-charter school piece, eviscerating the oft-heard complaints about charter schools. Second, this piece of interesting news. And finally, on Saturday in Newcastle, democratic candidate for governor, Jay Inslee, was quoted saying this about education: “we are no longer going to tolerate a two-to three-year delay in removing underperforming teachers from the classroom.”
Soon, Washington State will join the reform that is shaking up states like New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, Florida, Colorado, and many others. A charter school bill will pass through the legislature in Olympia very soon. Don’t expect the WEA to be happy about it. Class Warfare is just starting in Washington.
[photo credit: thethingsitdoes]
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