Sexism, Racism, Violent Threats and Other Tales from the Education Policy Wars

Where even distinguished professors wield spiked bats.


"When will rich little girls like @campbell_brown find a new charity du jour and let the professionals do our job," tweeted Timothy Murphy, a public school teacher in Sebring, Florida and the vice president of his local union affiliate. "I know it sounds sexist to say that [Campbell Brown] is pretty, but that makes her telegenic, even if what she has to say is total nonsense," education activist and historian Diane Ravitch told The Washington Post last month. 

Brown, a former TV journalist, leads Partnership for Education Justice (PEJ), which recently filed a lawsuit challenging several statutes in New York State that make it difficult for principals to fire inadequate teachers. Since then she's been the target of a barrage of hit pieces and social media trolls, focusing first on her credentials, her appearance, her husband's career, his professional contacts, and where their children go to school. "The Real Campbell Brown," a report published by two union-backed nonprofits, has a cover depicting her as a marionette controlled by two robber barons showering her with bags of gold and dollar bills. She "lives a life of luxury and privilege," it notes, "an elitist working with many of the leading anti-public education and right wing ideologues in the country."

Welcome to the bloodstained sandbox of education policy, where distinguished professors wield spiked bats, union thugs hurl violent threats, and how you look and who you're friends with matters more than what you say. Attacking ideas without mercy is a noble sport, but the ed world is all about character assassination. The tragedy is that worthwhile arguments on both sides of the debate get lost in the mayhem.

Before lefty ed warriors fixated on Campbell Brown's physical appearance and bank account, former Washington, D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee was considered the living embodiment of that "lucrative Republican-aligned corporate/billionaire-funded anti-union money fire hose." "She's an Asian bitch," Miami-Dade County teacher Ceresta Smith told a reporter at a protest in front of the U.S. Department of Education last year. RheeFirst.com, an attack website that the American Federation of Teachers discreetly launched in 2011, described the former chancellor as the "Sarah Palin of education," and then, displaying the razor-sharp wit typical of ed warriors, accused her of "Rhee-Writing History."

The attacks on Brown have followed a similar script, though as a newcomer to the field she's also been slammed for lacking graduate school credits and classroom management skills. Her critics set up a Facebook page pushing the idea that Brown can't "weigh in on job protections for teachers" until she teaches for a week—which, by analogy, is like demanding that a health care policy pundit perform open heart surgery or shut up.

On her blog, Life Under the Ponytail, teacher Bailey Shawley began her rebuttal to Brown with a recitation of her own credentials—presumably a preemptive effort to add fire power to the weak arguments that follow: "I am certified by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to teach Secondary English for 99 years" with "a Masters of Education plus sixty additional graduate credits." The New York Times' Frank Bruni wrote a column this

||| Source: Phawker
Source: Phawker

week critical of teacher tenure, leading educator Deb Stahl (author of My Very Own Crunchy and Progressive Music Mama Blog) to tweet in protest: "With all due respct, @FrankBruni has less classroom exp & ed degrees than I do. Wht makes him exprt & not me?"

Isn't it bad enough that an ed degree is a prerequisite to teaching?

The career trajectory of Diane Ravitch, never a K-12 teacher but known to squawk herself about the inadequate resumes of her debating opponents, provides a case study of what's been lost in all the name calling. Her 1974 book, The Great School Wars: A History of the New York City Public Schools, is a classic in the field. And the work that first made her a hero to the anti-charter movement, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education (2010), is unconvincing overall but a must read nevertheless; the book makes a provocative indictment of the ed reform movement in New York City after 2002 and a partially convincing case against high-stakes testing.

But today Ravitch's popular blog reads like the ravings of a paranoid conspiracy theorist crusading against rich hedge fund managers engaged in a malevolent plot to monetize poor kids. (The particulars of how philanthropy leads to profits are yet to be worked out.) Take her recent post on Campbell Brown, which highlights the work of the blogger known as "Mother Crusader," a.k.a. Darcie Cimarusti. Through "diligent research," Cimarusti found that Brown's husband, Dan Senor, was a "spinmeister" in support of the Iraq War and has worked with billionaire Paul Singer, whose investment practices don't meet Cimarusti approval.

And what do the investment decisions of Brown's husband's business associate have to do with boosting student achievement?

Ravitch has come to see the ed wars as "a Manichaean struggle for the future of America's children," waged by "the malefactors of wealth" against "the forces of light," Manhattan Institute Senior Fellow Sol Stern wrote in an excellent City Journal piece last year. "As in the words of the union song, all Ravitch wants to know is "'Which Side Are You On?'"

Stern told me in an interview that he has "some real questions about some of the things Campbell Brown is doing," doesn't believe "tenure issues should be resolved in the courts," and thought Brown's 2012 Wall Street Journal op-ed on teacher sexual misconduct "sensationalized the issue." Yet he finds the personal assault on Brown "disgusting," and says "both sides" have been guilty of ad hominem attacks. The author of a terrific 2003 book arguing in favor of school choice, Stern's thinking has shifted in the last decade: He still believes in charters, but says his book may have overstated the case—which is just the sort of nuanced point of view that's been partially muted. 

"[The education reform] resistance now must lead our claims with substance and take care not to create opportunities for our central messages to be overshadowed by either credible or unwarranted complaints about tone," wrote Paul Thomas, a professor at South Carolina's Furman University, in a recent blog post. Blogger Peter Greene echoed Thomas' call: "We do not need, and it is not useful, to try to prove that reformsters are terrible people," he writes. "We need to be talking about their terrible ideas."

That's progress, though attacking ideas rather than people has another advantage they didn't mention: Both sides might learn something.