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 whoquestion 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.