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Brill: Colorado a reform bellwether

If Steven Brill needed yet another reminder about the passionate level of debate over education reform, he got one during a Denver radio appearance earlier this month.

As a guest Sept. 7 on David Sirota’s program on AM 760, KTLK, also known as “Colorado’s Progressive Talk,” Brill found himself in an hour-long contentious debate in which his host challenged him on some of the central assertions in his controversial new book, Class Warfare.

“Tell me when you’re finished, so I can talk,” Brill implored Sirota, more than once.

At one point, Sirota countered with “I’m part of this, you know. I don’t pretend to be a moderator. I’m part of this discussion here, whether you like it or not.”

Reflecting on that appearance in a recent interview with Education News Colorado, Brill expressed some lingering exasperation.

“He didn’t mention that his wife was a pro-union, anti-reform candidate for the board of education,” said Brill, who appeared on the show with New York-based journalist Dana Goldstein.

Reminded that Sirota had told his listeners up front, “Full disclosure, my wife Emily is running for school board here in Denver,” Brill said, “But he didn’t say, ‘She’s supported by the union, and parroting every position I’m about to advance, in attacking this guy.’ ”

Emily Sirota, a candidate for the southeast Denver District 2 board seat who was endorsed last week by the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, declined to comment on the exchange between Brill and her husband or Brill’s subsequent comments.

Union contracts described as an obstacle to change

Brill’s book takes a deep dive into the evolution of the education reform movement. It closely examines the political and philosophical divides separating supporters of charter schools and traditional programs, and highlights the role of teachers’ unions in shaping not only the schools but also the public debate about them.

Brill casts unions and the contracts they negotiate with their districts as erecting a barrier to what he views as progress in public education.

He presents the pothole-filled path toward education reform in the United States through the lens of several different states and school districts, and through the eyes of prominent leaders in the education community nationwide.

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New York City Public Schools get central billing. But Brill’s perspective spans the country, including Colorado, and he uses state Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, as one of his characters.

Brill traces Johnston’s arc from his service in Teach for America in Mississippi through his successful 2010 fight for passage of Senate Bill 10-191, the educator effectiveness law. He also captures Johnston’s dismay over Colorado’s failure to secure federal Race To The Top funding later that same year.

Colorado remains on Brill’s radar. He was in Denver last week to attend a Democrats for Education Reform event; it was not, he stressed, a fundraiser and he made the trip on his “own dime.”

“I think people who are in the know in education are definitely watching Colorado closely,” Brill said. “And I am fascinated by the effort to implement” Senate Bill 10-191, which will tie at least 50 percent of principal and teacher evaluations to student academic growth.

“There’s sort of three stages of this effort,” Brill said. “You get a law passed, or regulations that allow you to do some of the things reformers want to do. But then, how do you implement it, put it on the ground? If I say to you we need to promote, reward or fire based on performance, what do you do for a music or drama teacher? All of this stuff is harder than it looks.”

Class Warfare makes clear Brill’s perception of progress in education as a marathon, one in which the finish line remains frustratingly far down the road.

“With the kind of democracy we live in, the results take a long time,” Brill said. “Colorado is a great place to watch that play out, with the added benefit of knowing that they didn’t get any (Race To The Top) money from the federal government to do it with.”

Brill favors mayoral control of schools

Brill is well aware of Denver’s looming school board elections, though he has not studied the candidates or their platforms. But he prefers mayoral control over the Denver system, in which the public this year has only about eight weeks from certification of the ballot to Election Day to determine who should be overseeing governance of the city’s schools.

“I think as a general matter, responsibility for a school system ought to be with the elected public official” such as a mayor, Brill said.

“In school board elections, what percentage of the people actually turns out? What percentage could actually name the people they’re voting for? You know, it’s sort of like a judicial election. It’s tailor-made for special interest groups to have a really strong sway on what the outcome is.”

Although Brill said he has received “a ton of e-mail” from people saying they appreciate finally having “an explanation for what’s going on” in public schools, there have also been plenty of dissenters.

“The union clearly promotes opposition to anything they don’t like, but not necessarily in an up-front way,” he said. “A few weeks ago, a whole series of reviews started appearing in local newspapers and they all had some form of the same opening sentence, saying, ‘I haven’t read Steve Brill’s book and I don’t intend to, but here’s what I’m told about it and here’s why you shouldn’t read it either,’ which is a fairly interesting way of writing a book review.”

Critic: It’s not clear what Brill wants from ed reform

Rick Hess authored one of the more widely circulated reviews in education circles, in his “Straight Up” blog in Education Week. In a piece titled “The Trouble with Steven Brill’s Black-and-White Worldview,” Hess wrote, “I know who Brill is for – but I can’t figure out exactly what he’s for, except that it seems to be anything that his favorites are pushing.”

Brill dismisses that criticism.

“I think that’s nonsense,” Brill said. “My instinct as a journalist is that public officials ought to be accountable for their performance, when the taxpayers are paying them.”

Looking forward, Brill is concerned that President Barack Obama, painted in Class Warfare as deeply invested in reform both as a candidate and supporter of Race To The Top, is so hampered by the numerous challenges in his first term that he can no longer be effective in pushing reform forward.

The evidence, Brill said, is clear in the $447 billion jobs plan Obama announced Sept. 7. It would provide $35 billion for teacher rehiring and keeping first responders on the job, preventing up to 280,000 teacher layoffs.

“The best sign that he seems to think he’s hamstrung is that the latest proposal to shovel billions of dollars to local school systems had nothing of the kinds of conditions attached to it that the Race To The Top had,” Brill said.

“The constructive thing behind the Race To The Top is that it tied federal tax dollars to the recipients who are doing things consistent with what policymakers who got elected think should be done to improve schools,” he said.

“I think the reformers have to be pretty disheartened that there wasn’t even a mention of that in this proposal.”