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.