Steve Brill's blackboard jungle

August 19, 2011: 5:00 AM ET

Our Weekly Read column features Fortune staffers' and contributors' takes on recently published books about the business world and beyond. We've invited the entire Fortune family -- from our writers and editors to our photo editors and designers -- to weigh in on books of their choosing based on their individual tastes or curiosities. Each Friday we feature a different review. This week, Fortune contributor David A. Kaplan takes a look at Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America's Schools, Steve Brill's sprawling survey of what's wrong with the U.S. education system.

FORTUNE -- Every few years a new public policy issue becomes au courant for authors. We got religion on religion when it infiltrated political debate; we focused on nutrition when so many studies seemed to connect diet to overall health; we serially turn to tech when the stock market heats up. The latest subject is education reform. Books (as well as magazines and movies and blogs) have come out on the charter-school movement, standardized testing, technology innovations, for-profit schools, and even education-as-national-security problem. Now, no less a media star and entrepreneur than Steve Brill has weighed in. His widely anticipated Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America's Schools, published this week, aims to do for education what David Halberstam once upon a time did for Vietnam or Bob Woodward these days does seriatim about the White House.

It's a superb book, written in a journalistic style that one would expect from the 60-year-old Brill, who founded CourtTV, and the American Lawyer and Brill's Content magazines. In contrast to more scholarly examinations of education reform -- like Stanford political science professor Terry Moe's earnest "Special Interest"  -- Brill understands the value of character, scene and gossip. Class Warfare brims with them.

For example, Mayor Michael Bloomberg comes across not only as a courageous change-agent in New York City, but a hypocritical pol. Once Bloomberg decided in 2007 to run for a third term, according to Brill, he gave up trying to get major concessions from the teachers union in contract negotiations on matters like tenure. That meant undermining the schools chancellor, Joel Klein. "For the rest of his tenure," Brill writes, "Klein would be the rabid school reformer whose most eloquent arguments would be about union protections that remained embedded in the contract he had just signed." (Klein is now a top lieutenant to Rupert Murdoch and is running News Corp.'s (NWSA) internal probe of the phone-hacking scandal.)

There's also a wonderful bit about Klein's final day in office, last December. He inquired about his benefits package, which provided that if he chose to leave his 401(k) contributions in the education department's retirement fund, he'd get a guaranteed return of 8.25%. "How can you guarantee 8.25%?" asked an incredulous Klein. A human-resources clerk explained to him that he was entitled to what the union contract gave teachers: If any investments fell short of 8.25%, the city had to make the difference up. "Who else but Bernie Madoff guarantees 8.25% a year permanently?" Klein asked Brill. There's another rich scene in which a bunch of billionaires secretly meeting in Manhattan to discuss funding school reform all get stuck in the elevator at the apartment of Kenneth Langone, the Home Depot (HD) co-founder. It's this kind of inside reporting that make "Class Warfare" fun to read, even with its occasional tics. There are just too many characters, and the narrative jumps from Washington to Manhattan to Denver to Texas to L.A. to New Jersey to Brooklyn, from the 1980s to the present -- and not always in that order.

Brill's pedigree is as observant journalist, but he's made a mark as a doer as well. Beside the magazines and cable channel, he founded Journalism Online LLC -- which logistically helps publications charge Web fees -- and the now-failed Clear -- which enabled travelers to move faster through airport security. In "Class Warfare," he proposes a range of ways to fix the education system. He wants to undo the stranglehold he says the teachers unions have on politics, which in turn prevent teachers from becoming more accountable. That, he says, will permit teachers to be paid far more nationally -- from $65,000 to $165,000.

But unlike other reformers he wants not to co-opt labor's leaders rather than emasculate them -- to "enlist" them in the "fight." His "Nixon-to-China" suggestion for New York City: Hire Randi Weingarten, the powerful leader of the American Federation of Teachers, to run the schools. Brill says Weingarten actually told him she'd take the chancellor job. She even said Bloomberg offered her the post some years ago, Bloomberg denied this to Brill, adding, "It's a really stupid idea. Never in a million years." Brill's fantasies notwithstanding, it sounds like management-labor collaboration still has a long way to go.

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