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Should this man be in charge of the education system?
In recent weeks the debate over the future of public education in America has flared up again, this time with the publication of the new book Class Warfare, by Steven Brill, the founder of American Lawyer magazine. Brill's advocacy of "reform" has sparked different strands of criticism from the New York Times, New York University's Diane Ravitch and the Nation's Dana Goldstein.

But behind the high-profile back and forth over specific policies and prescriptions lies a story that has less to do with ideas than with money, less to do with facts than with an ideological subtext that has been quietly baked into the very terms of the national education discussion.

Like most education reporters today, Brill frames the issue in simplistic, binary terms. On one side are self-interested teachers unions who supposedly oppose fundamental changes to schools, not because they care about students, but because they fear for their own job security and wages, irrespective of kids. In this mythology, they are pitted against an alliance of extraordinarily wealthy corporate elites who, unlike the allegedly greedy unions, are said to act solely out of the goodness of their hearts. We are told that this "reform" alliance of everyone from Rupert Murdoch to the Walton family to leading hedge funders spends huge amounts of money pushing for radical changes to public schools because they suddenly decided that they care about destitute children, and now want to see all kids get a great education.

The dominant narrative, in other words, explains the fight for the future of education as a battle between the evil forces of myopic selfishness (teachers) and the altruistic benevolence of noblesse oblige (Wall Street). Such subjective framing has resulted in reporters, pundits and politicians typically casting the "reformers'" arguments as free of self-interest, and therefore more objective and credible than teachers' counterarguments.

This skewed viewpoint becomes clear in this excerpt of a C-Span interview with Brill about Class Warfare, in which Brill is talking about a group called "Democrats for Education Reform" -- a group financed by major hedge fund managers:
[The group] was created by a small group of frustrated education reformers ... They happen to be well-to-do frustrated education reformers who were Democrats and they had an epiphany ... And the epiphany they had was that the Democrats, their party, their party that they thought stood for civil rights, were the political party that was most in the way. And what frustrated them was they consider education reform to be the civil rights issue of this era. And they really couldn't believe it was their party that was blocking their idea of reforms that are necessary. So they describe it repeatedly ... as a sort of Nixon-to-China gambit in which Democrats are going to reform the Democratic Party and they've made lots of progress. (emphasis added)
Though self-billed as a work of objective journalism, Brill's book reads like an overwrought ideological manifesto because -- like much of the coverage of education -- it frames the debate in precisely these propagandistic terms.

As Brill and most other education correspondents tell it, those most aggressively trying to privatize public schools and focus education around standardized tests just "happen to be" Wall Streeters -- as if that's merely a random, inconsequential coincidence. Somehow, we are to assume that these same Wall Streeters who make millions off of "parasitic" investment schemes to leech public institutions for private profit couldn't have ulterior motives when it comes to public schools.

No, in the standard fairy tale sold as education journalism, these "reformers" are presented as having had an honest, entirely altruistic "epiphany" that led them to discover that "the reforms that are necessary" (ie., only the policies Wall Street deems acceptable) comprise "the civil rights issue of this era."

You don't have to believe me to know that the need is there; just listen to the corporate education "reformers'" own much-celebrated hero, Harlem Children's Zone's Geoffrey Canada, who insists schools in high-poverty areas "can't succeed ... without substantially increased investments in wraparound social services," reports the New York Times. But since those are investments that probably require tax increases, they aren't the thrust of the corporate "reform" movement's agenda.

In the bait-and-switch of the "Great Education Myth," then, the corporate "reformers" get to pretend that they care about poor people and brag that they are benevolently leading "the civil rights issue of this era," when what they are really doing is making sure America doesn't talk about the macroeconomic policies that make Wall Streeters so much money, and impoverish so many others in the process.

New front in the war on unions

Today, unions are one of the last -- and, unfortunately, weakening -- obstacles to corporations' having complete control of the American political system. Whenever there is a fight over economics in particular -- whenever a Wall Street-backed tax, deregulation, Social Security privatization or trade bill comes down the pike -- it is the labor movement that comprises the bulk of the political opposition. Therefore, crushing unions in general has been an overarching goal of the corporate elite, and one way to crush unions is through education policy that undermines one of the largest subsets of the labor movement: teachers unions.

Looked at through this prism, we see a key reason that education "reformers" are not satisfied with merely finding common policy ground with unions on points of potential consensus. They don't want any agreement with unions because the underlying goal is to destroy those unions entirely. Hence, "reformers" are increasingly focused on promoting union-free charter schools and diverting public school money into union-free private schools as a means of crippling the labor movement as a whole.

To know this truth is to know that the Walton family of Wal-Mart fame is now one of the biggest financial forces in the education "reform" movement. As the single most anti-union force in contemporary American society, the family now annually holds out a huge wad of Wal-Mart cash as a hard-to-resist enticement for cities to divert public school money exclusively into union-free charter schools or union-free "innovation" schools. Essentially, the money is offered, but on the condition that policymakers put it into education initiatives that undermine teachers unions.

While the foundation publicly insists it is looking only to help kids excel, union busting -- not student achievement -- is clearly what drives the Walton family's education activism. As but one example proving that motive, consider that just five days after news broke that Los Angeles' traditional public schools are outperforming charter schools, the Walton family announced it is dumping a massive new tranche of Wal-Mart cash into a plan to expand the city's charter schools. If the family was truly focused on helping kids, it would have put that money into traditional public schools that were showing success. Instead, the money went to the union busters, student achievement be damned.

Brill epitomizes how that motive has been ignored by establishment reporters covering education. After spending years reporting a massive tome on the education debate, he told the New York Times with a straight face that "I didn't see it as the rich versus the union guys," as if schools' being an arena for the age-old battle between capital and labor is so preposterous, it didn't even cross his mind.

Brill may be telling the truth here, because corporate education "reformers" are so ubiquitously branded as disinterested altruists, that any other motive probably never did cross his mind, just like it never crosses most other reporters' mind. But just because the union-busting part of the story isn't being told, doesn't mean it isn't a key objective of the "reform" movement.

None of this is to argue that teachers unions don't act out of self-interest. They do. The point, though, is that they do not have a monopoly on self-interest in the education debate. As the modern-day version of what Franklin Roosevelt would call "organized money," the underwriters of the corporate education "reform" movement are just as motivated by their own self-interest. It's just a different portfolio of self-interest.

For Americans looking for credible voices in the confusing education debate, the question, then, is simple: Which self-interest is more aligned with improving schools for our kids?

Teachers unions' self-interest means advocating for better teacher salaries and job security -- an agenda item that would, among other things, allow the teaching profession (as in other nations) to financially compete for society's "best and brightest" and in the process help kids. The unions' self-interest also means advocating for decent workplace facilities, which undeniably benefits not only the teacher, but also students. And it means pressing for curricular latitude that doesn't force educators to teach to a standardized test, a notion that would help actually educate students to think critically, rather than train them to be test-taking robots.

Corporate education "reformers'" self-interest, by contrast, means advocating for policies that help private corporations profit off of public schools, diverting public attention from an anti-poverty economic agenda, and busting unions that prevent total oligarchical control of America's political system. In short, it's about the profit, stupid.

Neither side's self-interest is perfectly aligned with the goal of bettering our education system. But one side is clearly far more aligned with that goal than the other.

David Sirota is a best-selling author of the new book "Back to Our Future: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live In Now." He hosts the morning show on AM760 in Colorado. E-mail him at ds@davidsirota.com, follow him on Twitter @davidsirota or visit his website at www.davidsirota.com.