Class Warfare: that’s the title Steven Brill gave to his recent book on the state of American education.
With such a title, one might think that that Brill’s book would investigate how the deep class divisions between America’s wealthy class and our poor and working class, a gap that has grown immensely over the last four decades, has harmed our schools and our students. After all, educational research has shown that greatest challenge our schools face is the grinding effect of poverty on so many of the students we teach.
But Brill’s book embraces without question or qualification the diagnosis of the wealthy Wall Street hedge-fund managers who have driven much of the dominant ‘education reform’ agenda: in their view, the educational failures of schools and students are the fault of public school teachers and teacher unions. This Wall Street scapegoating of teachers and unions is a profoundly self-serving narrative: for if it is poverty that, above all other factors, has the greatest negative impact on educational achievement, then educational progress would require us to address why, in the words of New York Times reporter Michael Winerip, “people like [the Wall Street hedge fund managers] are allowed to make so much when others have so little.” Winerip posed this question to Brill, who replied that he had not seen the ‘class warfare’ in American education “as the rich versus the union guys, although now that you say it, I can see how you could draw that line.”
Brill demonstrates a special talent for ignoring the obvious in his book, but perhaps nowhere is his obliviousness more glaring than on the nature of the ‘class warfare’ that now afflicts American education.
Ten Wealthiest Americans
- Bill Gates
- Warren Buffet
- Larry Ellison
- Christy Walton & Family
- Charles Koch
- David Koch
- Jim Walton
- Alice Walton
- Robson Walton
- Michael Bloomberg
Every year, Forbes Magazine publishes a list of the wealthiest Americans, and nine of the top ten richest men and women on the Forbes’ list figure prominently in open ‘class warfare’ against teachers and unions. Just look at what these powerful billionaires have done over the last year.
The wealthiest American is Bill Gates, who in recent months has attacked teacher tenure, teacher pay schedules, seniority layoffs and smaller class sizes. The Gates Foundation is now actively pursuing those regressive goals: it provided significant resources to promoting the anti-teacher, anti-union propaganda movie “Waiting for Superman.” (Gates himself appeared in “Waiting for Superman” as an ‘educational expert.’) Since the second wealthiest American, Warren Buffet, does his philanthropy through the Gates Foundation, he is effectively aligned with Gates’ educational agenda.
Four of the ten wealthiest Americans are from the Walton family, the owners of Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart is the leading violator of child labor laws in the United States and the most obstinately anti-union of American corporations. The Walton Family foundation has involved itself in education, with the goal of eviscerating the American union movement by undermining one of its strongest pillars — teacher unions. Walton has supported campaigns to institute vouchers, promoted “Waiting for Superman” and provided financial support to anti-union forces within the charter school movement and to anti-teacher organizations such as Michelle Rhee’s Orwellian named “Students First” and New York’s “Education Reform Now.”
Two of the ten wealthiest Americans are the Koch brothers, Charles and David Koch, who came to public attention first as the main financiers of the far right Tea Party movement and then as the bankrollers of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and his efforts to destroy his state’s public sector unions — especially its teacher unions. Koch Industries is one of the leading corporate polluters in the US, and the Kochs fund organizations that claim “global warming” is a hoax.
Forbes’ tenth wealthiest American is New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has campaigned over the last year for an end to seniority layoffs and the transformation of teaching into de facto at will employment, in which teachers can be fired for any reason, an end to teacher tenure and a radical diminishment of teacher pensions and health care.
Only one of Forbes’ ten wealthiest Americans is not engaged in active political warfare against public school teachers and teacher unions.
Teachers and teacher unions have not sought out this class warfare. To the contrary, the American Federation of Teachers made an effort to establish a dialogue with Bill Gates, inviting Gates to address our last national convention in Seattle. This overture had its critics, but it would be a serious mistake for unions to talk only to those who agreed with us. By the same token, we need to be honest about the results of our efforts at dialogue: Gates has become outspoken in his anti-teacher pronouncements. There’s not much left to discuss when he assumes such a posture.
In an unguarded moment, Warren Buffet bluntly communicated the reality that we now face. “There’s class warfare, all right,” Buffett said, “but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”
The realization that the class of the wealthy and powerful is waging war against teachers and teacher unions is a daunting one. We know that we will never be able to come close to matching their resources, dollar for dollar. But we are far from defenseless. In the words of the old union anthem “Solidarity Forever,” we possess “a power greater than their hoarded gold” in a resource they can never own — the ranks of teachers, unionists, families of public school students, working people and advocates of a rich and robust public square in American life.
What we face now has been faced by generations before us — in the labor movement, the civil rights and abolitionist movements, the feminist movement, and the movement to establish public education. Those who came before us overcame the powerful forces allied against them because they had moral right on their side, and appealed to what is best in America. They made the road, the freedom road that we now march down in their footsteps. This class warfare of the wealthy and powerful, like the class warfare that has come before, will not stand.
The spelling of Mr. Brill’s first name has been changed from Stephen to Steven.