Campbell Brown Is Getting The Same Treatment Michelle Rhee Got

Campbell Brown attends the Turnaround for Children's 5th Annual Impact Awards Dinner at Cipriani 42nd Street on April 30, 2014 in New York City./picture alliance Photo by: Dennis Van Tine/Geisler-Fotopres/picture-all... Campbell Brown attends the Turnaround for Children's 5th Annual Impact Awards Dinner at Cipriani 42nd Street on April 30, 2014 in New York City./picture alliance Photo by: Dennis Van Tine/Geisler-Fotopres/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images MORE LESS
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Updated 10:24 a.m. ET

Few issues these days bring the rhetorical heat like education. So I probably shouldn’t have been surprised to see a new attack site purporting to reveal “The Real Campbell Brown” as a right-wing mouthpiece shilling for Wall Streeters. After all, Brown is a leader in an ongoing legal fight in New York — where several lawsuits are seeking to replicate a recent California court’s decision striking down a number of the state’s teacher tenure rules (Vergara v. California).

In other words, the former CNN anchor’s support for the lawsuit established her — in the eyes of education reform’s opponents — as the “new Michelle Rhee.” Whether or not that’s the case, it’s true that Brown’s opponents are following a similar playbook to Rhee’s. Just as Rhee faced ugly rhetoric about her race and gender, Brown’s positions have already been dismissed on account of her looks. And Rhee had an anonymous, union-funded attack site of her own—Rheefirst.com.

I’m far from convinced by everything that gets done today in the name of education reform. But Rhee’s and Brown’s examples are indicative of a troubling pattern for reform opponents: anti-reformers are prone to shooting any reform messenger. Anti-reform has an ad hominem problem. In part this is because the anti-reform crowd is obsessed with who has standing to participate in education debates. Non-teachers don’t count (unless they’re Diane Ravitch). Parents’ voices are only permitted so long as they avoid direct challenges to failing schools.

I write about American education for a living, so I get a front row seat on this. Sometimes I write things like “Some charter schools, under some circumstances, are performing especially well.” When I write these sorts of things, my inbox, my Twitter mentions, and (occasionally) my phone spontaneously, simultaneously ignite. I get accused of hating teachers, teachers unions, and (a few times) white people. I get told that I’m a secret agent for Pearson, Bill Gates, the United Nations, and sometimes even the Muslim Brotherhood (really. No—REALLY). This isn’t occasional. It happens every time I write anything vaguely favorable about reform efforts, even when it’s mixed with criticism.

Sometimes, however, I write things like “Charter schools are far less likely to fix American education than their supporters think.” When I write things like this, I hear from reformers who question the merits of my arguments. No one impugns my character or my motives. No one accuses me of racial bias. No one tells me that I’m too handsome to be taken seriously (though, to be fair, that particular line of ad hominem hasn’t shown up in response to anything that I’ve written).

I think that this rhetorical imbalance reveals something about the current state of intellectual and political momentum in education. While the end of the Obama administration is likely to put a major dent in education reformers influence, they are still almost entirely on offense. By contrast, folks who oppose standards-based reform, increases in school choice, and more comprehensive educational accountability are almost entirely on defense. They’re almost always answering and critiquing reform efforts—from the Common Core State Standards to Race to the Top to the bevy of teacher tenure lawsuits seeking to emulate the success in California.

As a result, these opponents haven’t had the luxury of defining themselves, their ideas, or any sort of a comprehensive alternative to the current round of education reform (for a great book on why, read Jal Mehta’s Allure of Order). So they resort to ad hominems like those on the “Real Campbell Brown” site. They seek to define her out of the community of reasonable and permissible participants in education debates. Key quote: “The Real Campbell Brown should have no role in the debate over the future of education.”

Why not? Brown’s message can’t be taken seriously—because she’s registered as a Republican*. Brown’s message shouldn’t be heard—because of who funds her efforts. Brown’s claims can’t be correct—because her husband manages a hedge fund.

There’s an interesting, anti-democratic logic to this approach. Is it obvious that being a registered Republican* disqualifies someone from having a role in the debate over the future of American education? Is it clear that the activities of one’s spouse should preclude participation in American education debates? As a progressive who takes his cues from John Dewey, I’m nervous about any efforts to close down the scope of public discourse to exclude diverse opinions — especially when we exclude based on partisan, class, racial, ethnic, gender, or other proxies.

So it’s an ugly approach, sure, but perhaps an effective one for education groups that feel as though they’re under political siege. After all, the relentless attacks on Michelle Rhee eventually sidelined her. The danger, I think, is when anti-reformers conflate this sort of character assassination with meaningful, substantive political advocacy. There’s evidence that they’re making that very mistake now. One of the Brown attack site’s creators recently told Buzzfeed that the site was designed to “bring the focus back on ‘real issues.’” Let’s be blunt: that’s not the purpose or effect of a site that features a prominent caricature of Brown as a marionette for cigar-chomping bankers.

And what’s the payoff? Well, this brand of belittling worked somewhat with Rhee — but the fact that Brown’s getting the same treatment is proof that it’s done little to advance the anti-reform position on its merits. In other words, shooting every uncomfortable political messenger isn’t the same thing as convincing them to change their message.

*Update: One point of clarity. In order to make the point that “being a registered Republican should not disqualify someone from being heard in education debates,” I did not address whether the “Real Campbell Brown” site’s characterization of Brown was true. That is, her party registration shouldn’t determine whether or not she’s allowed to discuss American education policy. However, given that there’s confusion on this point, I should note that Brown appears to be registered as an Independent.

Conor P. Williams, PhD is a Senior Researcher in New America’s Early Education Initiative. Follow him on Twitter: @conorpwilliams. Follow him on Facebook.

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  1. The same treatment as Michelle Rhee? You mean, fawning, adulatory accounts in the media that overlook her entire lack of qualifications and willingness to engage in fraud?

  2. Avatar for reino reino says:

    As somebody who can’t stand Michelle Rhee or Campbell Brown and who teaches for a living, let me say that people who are not teachers are welcome to be a part of the debate. I want to thank Donna Brazile, Tammy Baldwin, and other politicians at Democrats for Public Education for supporting teachers and wanting to improve public schools.

    Also, it would be great if we could get a report on who is funding Campbell Brown, since she doesn’t want to tell us.

  3. Its a law firm, but she won’t disclose which one. She said so on Colbert Report a few weeks back.

  4. No, Campbell Brown can not and should not be taken seriously. She has no expertise of any kind in the field of education. Rather, she is a rightwing extremist peddling her rightwing agenda by exploiting her previous status and reputation as a failed “journalist” on CNN.

    Before she waded in to the rightwing “education” agenda, she campaigned for Mitt Romney. Here’a an OpEd she wrote for the New York Times shilling for the Romney campaign Obama, Condescending to Women Note how the Times failed to disclose that Brown’s husband worked for the Romney campaign as foreign policy advisor, and how they promoted her prior status as a failed CNN “journalist.”

    Dishonesty as practiced by the likes of Campbell Brown are why nobody should take what she says as anything but the pushing of a rightwing agenda, along with her husband, Dan Senor, who, you may recall, was the spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority – the disastrously failed bush regime in Iraq – and a longtime neocon, warmonger and now pusher of the rightwing education agenda.

    So, yeah, she’s getting the same well-deserved treatment that Michelle Rhee got, which is rejection of the rightwing drive to destroy public education as we know it, and hopefully with similar result. Drive her radical rightwing agenda into the gutter, where it belongs.

  5. This article is bunk. It dismisses comments, paragraph after paragraph, if you disagree with Campbell Brown, anticipating any criticism as an ad hominem attack against her character. The writer never manages to argue the merits of her position, for which the writer sets out to defend. Instead he goes after anyone that disagrees with Ms. Brown as an anti-reformer. Besides, the article is premised on a totally defensive stance that arguing for teacher tenure is somehow a failure of the teachers’ union because he doesn’t like the manner in which they go about doing it.

    I had to look this guy up because having a Ph.D these days doesn’t mean jack by itself in my book, especially when you’re shilling for the for-profit Charter School Industry, which is more or less what I see happening here. Education is being commodified these days, and is being taken over by for-profit moneyed interests, many out of Wall Street investment firms. That’s essentially what the Charter School Movement has become. Hailing from GR, MI, home of Dick DeVos’ school privatization plan, and home to the for-profit National Heritage Academy charter schools, I’ve seen the damage to our public school system here first hand over the years. You can hear the huge sucking sound clear across the country now, with Charter Schools in similar nature popping up to supplant funding real public education for all.

    This writer uses rhetorical trickery, to assign who are the reformers and who are the anti-reformers in his article. I think he has it completely backwards, the way I see it.

    The only “ad hominem” I’ll make alongside my comment is, that the writer looks like Doogie Howser incarnate.

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