Does Steven Brill's <i>'Class Warfare'</i> Pass Muster? Not if You Care About the Truth
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Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools, Steven Brill’s ethically challenged yet highly illuminating love letter to the corporate reformers bent on privatizing public education, is an extraordinary and revealing document. It is also one that, in a sane world, could easily serve as an indictment against the very process and people it was written to lionize.
In the main, Class Warfare tells the tragic and true story of how a handful of extraordinarily wealthy and ruthless private citizens, in league with their corporate and political allies, have been able to undermine the democratic process in order to remake the public school system in their image: that is, to remake it as another cog in the wheel of the ever more destructive unregulated free market which has profited no one but themselves. The book is a virtual bestiary of corporate reformers and their machinations, with Brill revealing page by page how men (and they are almost all men) with no knowledge of education, and no mandate except their own sense of entitlement, came to impose their myopic and disastrous schemes (charter schools, high stakes testing, value added metrics and the like) upon a nation. Students across the country, from sea to shining sea, are now suffering the consequences.
An essential part of this process was and is a public relations campaign designed to defame an entire profession. By ceaseless repetition of expertly produced nonsense – such as that poverty, class size, nutrition, and parental care are all rendered irrelevant by the presence of a “Super Teacher” (who by definition is a 20-something, non-unionized, educational hobbyist) – a previously honored profession somehow became responsible for the fall of a nation.
Those professionals, of course, are teachers – specifically, unionized public school teachers — who for the past 10 years have been demonized and scapegoated by pundits and politicians who have little idea what they are talking about but are too ideologically chained and arrogant to care. Stephen Brill is more chained, more arrogant and less knowledgeable than most, but this has not stopped him from being catapulted into the status of instant education expert. Indeed, Time magazine named him one of the 11 Most Important Education Activists of 2011, largely on the strength of Class Warfare and two related articles that pretended to be about education but were actually little more than skillful union bashing. Brill, in fact, is a master of the arts of insinuation and elision. And at these arts he is a formidable figure in the underhanded campaign against unions and teachers.
It is that campaign that I write about here, for it is my school that Brill uses to falsely malign an entire system.
Diane Ravitch, Valerie Strauss and Michael Winerip have all pointed out that Class Warfare is not really about education at all, but about “power politics” and how they have played out in education. What Ravitch, Strauss and Winerip do not mention, however, is how remarkably ignorant Brill is of the fundamental realities of how schools are run. Class Warfare is chock a block full of scenarios that reveal not just how little Brill knows about education but also how little credibility he has. At the same time, the same scenarios reveal how skilled a propagandist Brill is and in this way, the book can stand as a model for most corporate reform writing.
Brill begins and ends his treatise by contrasting two schools in Harlem, New York, a locale that, outside of New Orleans, is ground Zero for the charter school takeover of the public school system. The two schools, PS 149 (a traditional public elementary school) and Harlem Success Academy One (the first in Eva Moskowitz’s burgeoning charter school empire) are “co-located” in the same building – “separated only by a fire door,” as Brill puts it.