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What's Campbell Brown Doing Smearing Teachers All Over the Media?

Brown, a former CNN and NBC reporter, is arguing against teachers' unions--but doesn't want to disclose that her husband is on the board of Michelle Rhee's anti-union organization.
 
 
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Unfortunately, teacher-union-bashing has become one of the few areas in which many Democrats seem to agree with Republicans—and where people with no experience in the classroom declare themselves experts and pontificate to anyone who will listen about how if we could just fire those bad teachers, everything would be fine.

The latest self-proclaimed expert to grace the pages of the national media -- in this case Rupert Murdoch's Wall Street Journal -- is Campbell Brown, former CNN and NBC anchor and reporter. Brown, whose expertise appears to be that she testified in front of Governor Cuomo's Education Reform Commission, doesn't note that she has a personal connection to an organization that spends its time doing just that--demonizing teachers. She painted what appears to be a horrific tale of sexual predators let loose in public schools to prey on our children, and blames the processes that exist to provide teachers with some sort of job security—processes that unions have fought for over the course of decades—for keeping them there. She then hit Morning Joe, MSNBC's morning program, to make the same argument. 

There's just one problem with Brown's argument: it doesn't hold up under even the most casual scrutiny.

The relevant portion of the contract, which you can read in its entirety here, says:

6. Sexual Offenses Involving Students or Minors

A tenured pedagogue who has been charged under the criminal law or under §3020-a of the New York State Education Law with an act or acts constituting sexual misconduct (defined below) shall be suspended without pay upon a finding by a hearing officer of probable cause that sexual misconduct was committed.

….

In §3020-a proceedings, a mandatory penalty of discharge shall apply to any tenured pedagogue a) found by a hearing officer to have engaged in sexual misconduct, or b) who has pleaded guilty to or been found guilty of criminal charges for such conduct.

….

For purposes of this section, sexual misconduct shall include the following conduct involving a student or a minor who is not a student: sexual touching, serious or repeated verbal abuse (as defined in Chancellor’s Regulations) of a sexual nature, action that could reasonably be interpreted as soliciting a sexual relationship, possession or use of illegal child pornography, and/or actions that would constitute criminal conduct under Article 130 of the Penal Law against a student or minor who is not a student. 

In other words, school districts not only have the authority to terminate teachers who commit sexual misconduct—they are required to.

There's no reason for a professional reporter not to know this. This contract was agreed to by Joel Klein, the former New York schools chancellor, and the teachers' union. Klein is now the chief executive of Rupert Murdoch's “fledgling education division” and is a board member of StudentsFirst, the infamous anti-union organization led by scandal-plagued former Washington, DC schools chancellor Michelle Rhee. Also on the board of StudentsFirst? Dan Senor, Campbell Brown's husband.

Though Brown denied that StudentsFirst had anything to do with her Op-Ed and her TV appearance, StudentsFirst sent an angry email to supporters when Brown's connection to their organization (whose talking points she's parroting) was pointed out by, among others, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten. StudentsFirst claimed that questioning Brown's connection to their organization was “sexism.”

It is sexist, apparently, to ask where one's household gains its income, and whether that should have been disclosed in Brown's Op-Ed or in her television appearance. Yet male reporters from the Washington Post's education columnist to the Nation's Christopher Hayes have felt the need to disclose possible conflicts of interest to their audiences.Brown herself has disclosed in other appearances that Senor is, for instance, an adviser to Mitt Romney, but there's no mention of her connection to an organization that makes its living bashing teachers' unions—indeed, her credentials as a journalist are the only qualifications she has for her to pose as an expert on sexual misconduct in schools.

Zachary Pleat at Media Matters pointed out, additionally, that one of the two teachers Brown quotes in her piece has blogged for StudentsFirst, making the connection a bit more explicit.

Of course Brown has the right to her opinions and to report on stories that are inspired by her personal beliefs—it's what we in the independent media have been doing for a long time. But she should disclose if she has a financial or familial stake in the points she's making—and it's not sexist to note one's spouse's connections to a group might make one more favorably disposed towards that group's policies.

In the wake of the Penn State scandal, the charge of covering up child abuse has special weight. And in the wake of that scandal we've heard a lot of discussion about why people cover up for sexual predators, and the tendency of institutions to protect their own power. It's understandable to be concerned that job security for teachers might allow children to be exposed to abuse.

But “if it were just easier to fire the bad teachers!” is the ongoing refrain of a movement that has less concern for students than for how its donors can privatize and profit off of education. It's an argument designed to destroy solidarity and pit teacher against teacher – and parent against teacher -- and make everyone suspicious of one another. It serves to demonize the public schools so that parents who can afford to will send their kids to expensive private schools and those who can't will vote for cuts to schools that come out of teachers' pay.

Trying to blame unions for sexual misconduct, in this case, has a special irony because, as blogger Karoli at Crooks & Liars pointed out, Students First president Michelle Rhee herself intervened in a sexual abuse investigation involving her now-husband, Kevin Johnson.

As the Los Angeles Times reported in 2009:

“When Kevin Johnson, the former NBA star who is now mayor of Sacramento, was under investigation last year for alleged financial misdeeds and inappropriate behavior with female students, he had an important ally behind the scenes. Michelle Rhee, the nationally known education reformer who is now head of the Washington, D.C., public schools, had several conversations with a federal inspector general in which she made the case for Johnson and the school he ran in Sacramento, according to the inspector general. Rhee, who had served on the board of the school and is now engaged to marry Johnson, said he was 'a good guy.'”

The inspector general made a criminal referral to the U.S. Attorney, but the Sacramento police and federal attorneys, according to the Times, declined to press charges, and the inspector general was later fired by the Obama administration. (Republicans, the Times noted, claimed that the inspector general's firing was politically motivated because of Johnson's connections to Obama.)

This, of course, has nothing to do with Campbell Brown, though it does perhaps say something about Michelle Rhee's purported commitment to “students first.” As Karoli notes, “If I were to apply Campbell Brown's logic, I would smear every single charter school in the country because Kevin Johnson misused nearly a million dollars of taxpayer money and may have engaged in sexual misconduct, too. But I won't, because it's flawed, agenda-laden, political skullduggery.”

The fact is that using scare tactics about child molestation is cheap, politically-driven fearmongering that doesn't get to the heart of the real problem. However horrifying the thought of a predatory teacher might be, the problems with American and New York schools aren't created by packs of wild child molesters. To mislead people about what due process for tenured teachers means by implying that it exists to protect criminals is just another union-busting tactic of the type that has worked all too well in recent years, leading to the kind of attacks on public workers that we've seen erupting from the Right (and occasionally from Democrats, too) all too frequently.

These attacks hurt all workers, as they drive down wages and benefits, make jobs less secure, and create mistrust between the people who care the most about children: parents and teachers.


 

Sarah Jaffe is a staff writer at In These Times and the co-host of Dissent magazine's "Belabored" podcast. Her writings on labor, social movements, gender, media and student debt have been published in The Atlantic, The Nation, The American Prospect, AlterNet and many other publications, and she is a regular commentator for radio and television. You can follow her on Twitter: @sarahljaffe.