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Diane Ravitch on Steven Brill’s: Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools

September 9, 2011

Diane Ravitch penned an excellent piece here.   In the article, which I recommend you read, she basically takes apart Steven Brill’s ode to the fabulous Education Reformers.  Everything I have read from Brill, and everything I have heard uttered from him in various television interviews reeks of narcissism.  It seems to me that Mr. Brill is incessantly trying to be “noticed” and being involved in education reform has given him a platform to “be somebody.”

I am going to quote from a little ways down in the article where Diane gets to Brill:

Steven Brill’s Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schoolscelebrates the improbable consensus among conservative Republicans, major foundations, Wall Street financiers, and the Obama administration about school reform. Brill, a journalist and entrepreneur, portrays the leaders of today’s reform movement as heroes. They include Wendy Kopp, who created Teach for America (TFA) and raised some $500 million for the organization over the past decade; Jonathan Schnur, whom he credits as the architect of the Obama administration’s $4.35 billion competition called Race to the Top; Michelle Rhee, chancellor of schools in the District of Columbia from 2007 to 2010; Joel Klein, chancellor of the New York City public schools from 2002 to 2010 and now chief adviser to Rupert Murdoch; Eva Moskowitz, leader of the Harlem Success Academy charter school chain; and David Levin and Michael Feinberg, founders of the KIPP charter schools.

Brill also lavishly praises the billionaire equity investors and hedge fund managers who have financed the reform movement, including Whitney Tilson, Ravenel Boykin Curry IV, John Petry, and Joel Greenblatt. Brill writes reverentially about their glamorous world. Curry, for example,

seems the typical preppy socialite. He and his wife have homes in Manhattan (Central Park South), East Hampton, and the Dominican Republic. His father, Ravenel Curry III, also runs a money fund. He and his wife frequently appear in society columns, and she’s a well-known high-end interior decorator.

A graduate of Yale and the Harvard Business School, Curry is deeply involved in school reform.

The financiers of public school reform described here live in a world of spectacular wealth. They believe in measurable outcomes; their faith in test scores is greater than that of most educators, who understand that standardized tests are not scientific instruments and that scores on the tests represent only a small part of what schools are expected to accomplish. The Wall Street men have found a cause that is both “exciting and fun” and, as Curry IV puts it, “because so many of us got interested in this at the same time, you get to work with people who are your friends.” It is unlikely that any of them have close personal connections to public education, yet they have made it their mission to change national education policy. School reform is their favorite cause, and they like to think of themselves as leaders in the civil rights movement of their day, something unusual for men of their wealth and social status.

In 2005, the financiers formed an organization called Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) to promote ideas such as choice and accountability that were traditionally associated with the Republican Party. They set out to change Democratic Party policy, which in the past, as they saw it, was in thrall to the teachers’ unions and was committed to programs that funneled federal money by formula to the poorest children. DFER used its bountiful resources to underwrite a different agenda, one that was not beholden to the unions and that relied on competition, not equity.

While it was easy for the Wall Street tycoons to finance charter schools like KIPPand entrepreneurial ventures like Teach for America, what really excited them was using their money to alter the politics of education. The best way to leverage their investments, Brill tells us, was to identify and fund key Democrats who would share their agenda. One of them was a new senator from Illinois named Barack Obama, who helped launch DFER at its opening event on June 3, 2005. The evening began with a small dinner at the elegant Café Gray in the Time Warner Center in New York City, then moved to Curry’s nearby apartment on Central Park South, where an overflow crowd of 150 had gathered.

DFER also befriended Congressman George Miller from California, the powerful leader of the Democrats on the House Education and Labor Committee. DFERsupported Cory Booker, who eventually became mayor of Newark. A DFER fund-raiser produced $45,000 for Congressman James Clyburn, “the most influential member of the Congressional Black Caucus,” who returned home to South Carolina to champion tuition tax credits and charter schools. Brill writes thatDFER sent a memo to the Obama team immediately after the presidential election, naming its choice for each position. At the top of its list, for secretary of education, was Arne Duncan.

I didn’t know this about Obama, but it makes sense to me.  It also makes sense to me why Obama hired Arne Duncan rather than Linda Darling-Hammond as his Education Secretary.  I will say it again: “as teachers we need to know that the people we are voting for have our interests in mind, and we need to be politically active.”

Please read Diane’s entire article for a good history lesson on the “reformers.”


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