Photo: Brad Barket/Getty
Former CNN and NBC journalist Campbell Brown in July launched an education-focused website, The Seventy Four, after spending the last few years as an advocate for education reform.
Brown has become a lightning rod for criticism from teacher unions and their allies. New York magazine called her “the most controversial woman in school reform.” Esquire’s Charles Pierce said her efforts have “nothing to do with improving education and everything to do with busting one of the last remaining public-sector unions that people like Scott Walker haven’t yet blown up.”
Brown’s defenders, like New York magazine writer Jonathan Chait, have argued that reform leaders like Brown — and before her, former D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee — have come under intense personal criticism from the pro-union left because labor has wanted to avoid fighting President Obama, who has empowered Education Secretary Arne Duncan to push a number of initiatives the unions don’t like.
Brown spoke with Yahoo News about the launch of her site, what she hopes to accomplish online and in the presidential forums she is hosting in the next few months, and how she thinks education will be an issue in the political world in 2016.
Yahoo News: What are you trying to achieve with this, and what is it — is it news or advocacy?
Campbell Brown: I believe it’s a news site. When people ask me, what am I, personally, that’s a little different. I had a moment where I left journalism, and I started getting interested in this issue and writing about it, where I felt there was a right side and a wrong side around a lot of these issues relating to education. It was my obligation as a journalist to be clear about that.
I was talking to a very smart Republican thinker who was saying that the Common Core energy on the right has been kind of a disaster for ed reform, because rather than having Republicans focus on reform and choice, the right is largely focused on opposing something which is kind of the fever swamp.
Agree with that, yeah.
He kind of paired that with saying that the anti-Common Core energy on the left is also something that helps the unions, because there’s no emphasis on testing and standards and accountability. His perspective is that educational reform has lost momentum.
I would agree with that, but I think it’s a blip on the road. Here’s why. Because Common Core fight is a lot of different things, unrelated things conflated. Part of our mission on the site is to break those pieces apart and restore some of the nuance and thoughtfulness to the debate around Common Core, which I think will let a little bit of the air out of the tire. You know what I mean?
Can you offer anything on what you’re going to do on Common Core?
I think it’s how it gets covered. Whenever someone says to me, “Are you for or against Common Core,” the first question I ask is, “What do you think Common Core is?” You will get a different answer from every single person. You will literally get a different answer. To some people, Common Core means what it actually is, which is a set of standards. That’s not necessarily most people. To other people, Common Core is a new curriculum that’s been implemented at their school that they don’t understand. It’s applying new teaching tools. I’ll give you a small example as a sidebar. My kid is now learning Singapore math. I don’t understand Singapore math. I didn’t learn math that way. I can’t help him with his homework. Does that scare me a little bit? Yes. But at the same time, I recognize that teaching has evolved and that my kid is learning math in a better way than I did, and I should be supportive of that.
Ask other people what they think Common Core is about: It’s a test. You ask them, they will tell you it’s a test. Common Core isn’t a test, but for some people it is, because they don’t like the testing piece of it.
Which kind of goes back to No Child Left Behind, and there’s been a decade of complaints about that.
Right, so these are all different things, and they’re all creating anxiety in people about different things. For one mom, it’s about, “God, my kid doesn’t test well, I hate this Common Core. My kid doesn’t test well.” For another mom, it’s, “I don’t get this math, I can’t help my kid with his homework, this is driving me crazy, I hate Common Core.” For another mother, it’s, “I don’t want federal involvement in education in any form, so the idea that we would have one set of standards bothers me philosophically, so I hate Common Core.”
What we want to do with Common Core is explain it. Just put honesty and truth back into the debate, right. Break those pieces apart, so that we can try to get real solutions to real problems. If Common Core is being implemented in one state in a really bad way, and people are reacting strongly, which is normal, you want to be able to respond to what the actual problem is and not some political sound bite that’s floating up in the atmosphere. You know what I mean?
So, I’m sure if you told a lot of people there’s going to be a site that actually explains Common Core, they’d say, “Great, when can I read it?” Are you going to do something like a Vox explainer that kind of sets the ground?
On the site we have flash cards. Right now, we’re just adding them every single day, because it takes a lot of time to put together. They’re very similar to Vox’s card stacks. Imitation is the best form of flattery. I’m proud to say we just completely ripped off Vox. It was such a good idea.
To close the circle on this topic, you think this is a blip in the road. Why is that?
Because it is so many different problems that I think, the states are taking the lead on this. Yes, it’s part of the presidential debate. [But] as states individually begin to work through these problems and address them at the legislative level, the problem goes away. It’s smoothing out. The controversy’s dying down. They’re making the necessary fixes, directly in relation to what their problems are. Not everywhere. Obviously politics is playing a role in all of this. But if you actually talk to the superintendent and the people on the ground who are dealing with this every day.
I would use Louisiana as a great example. It’s my home state, so I’m a little closer to Louisiana than I am to other places. There’s been a big fight between Bobby Jindal, who’s running for president, and the state superintendent, John White, over Common Core implementation. I think most people would argue that John has done a pretty good job of implementing it, and that Common Core implementation has gone better in Louisiana than it has in a lot of other places. But because Jindal is running for president, it’s been a bigger issue in terms of media coverage and visibility because you have the governor screaming and yelling about it. If you look at what’s going on with teachers and parents, it’s not as much of a blowup as it has been in some other places.
Bobby Jindal is coming to your summit. He’s going to get a pretty tough time there.
You know, look. The summit is not about raking people over the coals, which I certainly have done in my career as a political journalist. That’s not what we intend to do here. That is not what this is going to be about. If because I’ve written things critical of some of these candidates on Common Core and other issues, if they would prefer somebody else do the interview or moderate, I’m fine with that. The intention of the summit is really just to give them a platform to talk at length about their views on education more broadly. So obviously, if somebody’s flip-flopped on Common Core, we want to have to hear a really thoughtful explanation for why. But it’s more, when you’ve got somebody who is going to be president of the United States, potentially, and you’ve got 30 minutes with them on one single issue, it’s a rare opportunity to have them go deep on something, and really see what they know, and what they care about, and what their broad views are.
If Jeb Bush is the nominee, handicap the politics of education between him and Hillary in your mind. How does that play out?
There are pros and cons for both. He’s probably more knowledgeable on education than any other candidate running on the right or the left because he created this foundation and has worked on it for years since he left the governor’s office. I’m assuming that Democrats will try to paint his record in Florida as a negative. It sort of depends on which way the country is leaning on a lot of these issues.
What’s the case that it’s a negative?
I think they’ll use the same talking points we’ve heard over and over, about, you know, parental choice is really driven by corporate interests and big, bad hedge funds, and those typical talking points. Whereas the other side says, “Parental choice is parental choice. It’s trying to give people more options, and certainly give low-income families more options.” But depending on which audience you’re speaking to and the language you use, that can go two different ways.
What makes it interesting for us at The Seventy Four to cover is that we don’t really know which way [Clinton is] going to go, because it appears, if she starts moving to the left as she is, as it looks like now — she got [American Federation of Teachers] endorsement — it does mean this is going to be a lot easier than it would have been if she stayed on the same path as Obama. It depends on what Hillary says now. If you look at her record in Arkansas, she took some really interesting positions. I don’t think we know, frankly, what she really believes. I’m really curious to find out.
I don’t know if you read Jonathan Chait’s piece. I thought his portrait of Randi Weingarten in sort of general strokes was an interesting one. He has this passage in there where he says, “She’s a pragmatic figure who has often compromised with reformers. Stephen Brill’s ‘Class Warfare,’ a staunchly pro-reform account of the education wars, suggests Weingarten take over as New York City schools chancellor, in the hope that she could reconcile unions to reform, Nixon-to-China style.” What do you think of that — is that plausible?
Well, my experience with her is limited, but it has been her funding personal attacks against me and my family. So, seeing her as that great compromiser is laughable to me.