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Saturday, August 27, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: ‘Class Warfare.’ By Steven Brill!

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‘Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools’ by Steven Brill. 496 p. Simon & Schuster. $28. , AP Photo.

Legal journalist and entrepreneur Steven Brill turns to education reform in a new book, ‘Class Warfare.’ Brill talks to Nick Summers about the crisis in America’s schools.

Steven Brill, a journalist who founded American Lawyer magazine and Court TV, is only a recent student of the education beat. He first wrote about the field just two years ago, with a feature in The New Yorker about the New York City school system’s “rubber rooms”—spaces where teachers accused of misconduct were warehoused, doing nothing for full pay, in some cases for years. But Brill, it turns out, is a quick study. His new book, Class Warfare, is a deeply reported work on the state of the school reform movement in the United States, written in dense bursts that give color to both policy and people: the origins of President Obama’s Race to the Top program; a clandestine meeting of billionaire reformers that ends in a stranded Fifth Avenue elevator; the arc of a bright young teacher whose idealism gives way to burnout.

Mostly, though, Class Warfare reads as an argument against the teachers unions—functioning as the second half of a one-two punch, after the influential 2010 documentary Waiting for Superman, that casts the unions as the main obstacle to fixing America’s schools.

The book quotes one liberal Democrat, then former San Diego schools head Alan Bersin, explaining his evolution on teachers unions to Joel Klein, a man of similar politics who was beginning a job running New York’s schools. “It didn’t even take me ninety days,” Bersin tells Klein in Class Warfare, “before I went from being a Democrat who always thought the unions were the good guys to realizing that unions were not the good guys—that the Democratic Party and the school reform movement had run into a rock because of the transformation of the teachers’ union movement from the ’60s to the ’90s from a progressive force to the most conservative force in the mix.”

For Brill, this epiphany echoed his own changing politics. “I think that’s true, and I think that Democrats have had to come to grips with that,” he says. “A Joel Klein or an education reformer can say persuasively that public education is the civil rights issue of this era. And the reason they can now say it even more persuasively is what the success of the good charter schools prove: not that if you call something a charter school it’s automatically good, but that demography does not have to be destiny.”

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