In "Who's Afraid of Campbell Brown? (Teachers' unions, and for good reason)" Hemingway provides a dispatch from an alternate universe where teacher unions rule and Brown is a unjustly victimized humanitarian. It's not nearly as interesting as it could have been had Hemingway also checked out some of the recordings from the corruption trial of disgraced NY Senate Leader Dean Skelos, because those recordings give us a bit more information about Brown's friends. But we'll get back to that-- first, a look at Hemingway's piece.
He opens with a look at Brown's modest office arrangements, and as will be the case throughout the piece, uses a bit of misdirection to avoid including some details. For instance, after describing Brown's low-rent office, he writes "But don't let this modest arrangement fool you" but the next part of that sentence is not "Brown has been given a $4 million budget to run her website." Nor (spoiler alert) is he ever going to mention that Brown's site requires a reportorial commitment to never run anti-charter stories. Instead, he wants us to know that Brown is parked on the moral high road.
Brown has promised that the site won’t shy away from advocacy and opinion—which it labels “opinion”—but at the same time she insists that her mission is not political. “My whole point about school reform is it’s not partisan. It’s not,” she says. “It’s a moral issue.”
And who is standing in the way of her righteous crusade? Three guesses
The trouble is, the last thing America’s teachers’ unions want is real reform, and they certainly don’t want Campbell Brown leading the charge. Far from making education a moral issue, they’re counting on it remaining a partisan one.
Exactly what reform charge is Brown leading? So far it appears that mostly she is leading the charge to establish herself as an important player, and she's not doing well. Hemingway will offer his warmed-over claim that the union "got to" the Democratic candidates who skipped Brown's Education Summit in Iowa, but he doesn't address who "got to" the eight GOP candidates who skipped her similar session in New Hampshire (the six who showed up were Bush, Fiorina, Kasich, Christie, Jindal and Walker so she didn't squeeze much juice out of that group). Brown keeps trying to sell the "I'm so important the unions want to silence me" narrative, but it seems more likely that Brown just isn't that important. And her desire to inject education into the campaign would be admirable, if it were not so clearly attached to her privatization and teacher-busting agenda).
But in Hemingway's alternate universe, the unions' reach is long and strong. In his universe, even Obama has "appeased" unions (by killing off DC's choice program). This is because "all meaningful education reforms hinge on greater accountability and erosion of the ironclad union protections that keep bad, even criminal, teachers in classrooms" and so unions are all about the status quo (except that the status quo these days is the reformster agenda of high-stakes testing and free-range charters). But again, our narrative brings us back to Campbell Brown, Education's Joan of Arc:
Given that teachers’ unions are used to making some of the most powerful politicians in the country dance on a string, they’re not happy about the emergence of Campbell Brown as a politically influential voice in education reform. She’s well-connected, independent, and has deep pockets. Perhaps most important, she’s a former A-list broadcast journalist, and her communication skills are superb. Consequently, union leaders don’t just disagree with Brown—they feel intense personal hatred.
This is the kind of writing that's hard to respond to because I don't even recognize the reality Hemingway speaks of. In my reality, there is not a single national-stage politician who clearly stands for public education, teachers or teachers unions. In my reality, rank and file teachers are repeatedly complaining about national union leaders who gladly tie themselves up so that they can dance to whatever tune the politicians pipe. Are there people who "intensely hate" Brown personally? I don't know. She tweeted at me once. It wasn't unpleasant. But mostly I don't think much about her. In the reformster landscape, she's one more well-funded pro-charter anti-teacher shill, probably a little less effective than many.
But Hemingway marshals a list of articles that were inspired by some mysterious teacher union memo. People keep asking who is funding her! People keep bringing up that her husband is a "Wall Street figure" and neocon who helped put positive spin on a war from which he allegedly profited. Hemingway lists all these unfun questions about Brown-- but he answers none of them. This is perhaps the most intellectually dishonest moment in a piece that is not exactly awash in rigor-- if Brown, who is pushing charters like crazy, is funded by people who stand to profit from charters, that matters. If it doesn't matter, then it also doesn't matter which politicians get teacher union money and support. Hemingway cannot have it both ways, but that's what he is demanding.
Then back to Brown's crusade against tenure, which is old news at this point (as is the lawsuit that was going to make her a player, but didn't). Hemingway also re-fries the old beans of a Diane Ravitch prettiness quote (calling her a union spokesperson, which is, again from some alternate universe).
Brown bemoans the lack of someone to engage with her, and again, this does not seem to be so much about the need to fix education as the need for Brown to find someone who will give her stature by treating her like she's a Big Deal. She wants someone from the opposition to debate her thoughtfully, and Hemingway neener-neeners that they're all afraid (she should take a page from the former failed chancellor of DC schools, who became a household ed reform name while steadfastly refusing to debate anybody). I believe there are many public education advocates who fit the bill of knowledgeable and interested in progress; I'm just not sure why they should feel the need to debate a self-appointed charter advocate, any more than I can think of a reason that the Secretary of Education should give me a call just because I'm a self-appointed education blogger.
Brown via Hemingway wades into other issues like testing and Common Core, but it's clear that's not her area of passion (or at least not one where it's clear which way the wind is blowing). But then she winds back around to choice, and heats up again.
Again, Hemingway lives in some alternate universe where Obama and the unions have fought school choice. In my universe, the Obama administration has thrown plenty of money and support at charters, and the unions have been exceptionally mild-mannered in doing anything that might resemble opposition of it. In fact, the problem with much of Hemingway's narrative is that it pictures the NEA and AFT as staunch defenders of traditional public schools at the same time that rank and file members have had to repeatedly try to force their unions to do things like call out Duncan (who was only implementing Obama policies, but the unions would never, ever say anything bad about an Obama policy). In other words, there are plenty of us who wish that the union had as much power and will to oppose ed reform as he imagines it does.
Hemingway lists some of the big failures in the ed reform biz, like Gates and Zuckerberg (and even, wierdly, Shyamalan), and asks how little old Campbell Brown can hope to succeed where they have failed.
Well, a little self-awareness goes a long way. Campbell Brown understands the roadblocks thrown in front of all of the wealthy dilettantes who came before her, and she intends to defy expectations. For one thing, far from trading on her celebrity, she’d already said goodbye to her high-flying career in broadcast journalism years before starting the Partnership for Educational Justice and the Seventy Four.
Not trading on her celebrity? I'm not faulting her for it-- she is who she is-- but pretending that her celebrity isn't a thing that factors into her new line of work is just silly. In fact, let's ask someone else to chime in on Campbell Brown's celebrity:
DEAN SKELOS: "I'm going into the city, meeting with some billionaires ... on school tax credit stuff - "
ADAM SKELOS: "Who are you meeting with?
DEAN SKELOS: " Campbell Brown."
ADAM SKELOS: "Ohhh... "
DEAN SKELOS: "Okay."
ADAM SKELOS: "Any financial ... people?"
DEAN SKELOS: "Yeah, you know the ... uhh ...the reporter, former reporter ...a whole bunch of them(i.e. billionaire charter promoters) and I'm having lunch with a bunch of them. Then I'm going to - "
ADAM SKELOS: "Dad, you’ve gotta ...you've gotta take these names down for me.”
DEAN SKELOS: "I got 'em all. I got 'em."
ADAM SKELOS: "All right."
That's a transcript from some of the government wiretaps collected for the corruption trial of Dean Skelos who, at the time of this conversation, was hunting for a job for his son (you can listen to the recordings at the link). And so he set up a meeting with Campbell Brown and some billionaire charter backers.
So Campbell Brown doesn't need any more friends. She has friends who give her $4 million a year to run a charter advocacy website and very rich friends who help her meet with influential New York politicians and friends with deep pockets and even friends who write hugely complimentary profiles for conservative magazines.
No, what Brown needs is some enemies. She needs someone to take her on in public debate, or attack her on some high-profile platform. She needs to fight the Obama administration, maybe, she thinks, except that they are for pretty much most of the things she's for. She needs the unions to really come at her (she took a weakish swipe at them this weekend, about which I'll write elsewhere) and really draw some public blood so that people can see her really fighting hard, but the national unions are kind of soft and flabby and haven't shown much inclination to really fight reformy programs and in fact have cozied up to the Clinton campaign which will probably usher in even more programs that Brown actually agrees with.
Brown has unwittingly underlined our problem. She needs somebody with Stature and Importance to be her enemy, but there are very few people with Stature and Importance who are standing up for public education and teachers, and those few people don't seem to have the time or inclination to waste energy on an ed reform bit player.
Maybe Brown can start by going toe to toe with some C-level bloggers. Or maybe the next time she's having a backroom meeting with her billionaire charter buddies, she can ask them to buy her a sparring partner.