Campbell Brown: It’s amazing school choice is somehow controversial

Editor’s note: Former CNN host turned ed reform advocate Campbell Brown gave a speech Tuesday night at the American Federation for Children summit in Florida. Here are her remarks as delivered:

Campbell Brown
Campbell Brown

I’m so grateful to be part of this conversation as we talk about some of the challenges that lie ahead, and how we keep trying to move the ball forward. I get asked a lot about how I got involved in this, in education, and advocating for school choice. And the answer for me is pretty much the same as Lisa (Leslie, the former WNBA star who spoke earlier) and Faith (Manuel, the mother of a tax credit scholarship student, who also spoke earlier): I became a mother. …

And that’s probably the same answer a lot of other people in this room would have. Like every mother, like every other parent, I remember holding my son Eli in my arms for the very first time and looking at him and realizing that the life I knew was over. (laughter) And going forward, my life would be dedicated to caring for this child, and protecting this child, and trying to ensure that he had every opportunity possible to be all that he could be. And No. 1 on my list, in thinking about this, and thinking about both my kids now, I have two boys, is and was their education.

And I was thinking how fortunate I had been in my life. I had this career in television. And I lived in New York City. And my kids were going to have so many options available to them. I had so many choices and they would throughout their lives have so many opportunities because of this. And I think with that comes the recognition that that’s not the case for most people. And those choices and those options are not available to mothers who care about their kids just as much as I do, and have the same hopes and dreams for their children that I have for mine. And who want their child to have every opportunity in life just like I did. If we believe that education is a fundamental right, then everyone should have that choice.

It never ceases to amaze me that this very simple idea, that a parent who wants to try to find a school, a better school to try to give their child a better life, should have that choice. The idea that this is somehow controversial is amazing to me.

I spent most of my professional life in television journalism. I was at NBC News for 11 years. … I mostly covered politics. I had a show on CNN for almost three years after that. My first boss in TV was Tim Russert, the late host of Meet the Press, who was a wonderful man and a great friend and mentor to me. And he taught me, when I was young and pretty clueless, the ways of the old school journalism. This was before MSNBC and before FOX. And so back then, I remember going to work every day, as Tim had taught us, believing basically when you were covering a story, both sides had some merit. And both sides deserved a fair hearing. And your job as a reporter was essentially to referee the match. But, as I think a lot of you know, sometimes you look at a problem, you evaluate a problem, and it’s very clear that both sides do not have merit. And referee is not a role you can play when the lives of children are hanging in the balance. (applause)

You can’t question a parent’s right to do what they believe is best for their child. And so, as a journalist, I did what I sort of knew how to do, which was to write about it and research it and try to talk about some of these issues, the inequity in our system and how special interests and the education establishment were working together to try to stop meaningful change, and prevent parents from having choices. And in doing so, through writing and speaking, I learned a valuable lesson about power and truth and accountability.

And there was one issue in particular that took me from being a supporter of this cause to an activist in the fight. And it was a couple years ago, and I remember reading in the papers in New York City, these stories about these 14 teachers who had been found guilty of sexual misconduct with children, and they still had their jobs. And I read this with horror. As a mother, I couldn’t believe it was true. And I began researching it, and there was this crazy state law in New York that exists in many other states as well that gives teachers special protections, tenured teachers, that no other public employee has. And it took the power to remove a teacher who had engaged in misconduct out of the hands of senior leadership and gave it to an arbitrator who the teachers union had a say in choosing. So these arbitrators were almost never handing down guilty verdicts. And people you would want nowhere near a child were being found guilty and allowed to keep their jobs, in some cases still in the classroom with kids.

As a mother this offended me so deeply, and I thought as a reporter, well if I expose this, if I write about it, if I bring attention to it and spotlight it more, then of course this will shame the union and this will shame the politicians who support the union on this, and change will come, right? (laughter). I was so naïve. But I did, I researched all these cases, and I did these Freedom of Information law requests, and I got all these documents together, of these specific cases, and what these arbitrators had done and decided. And I wrote op-eds about it, and then I did this series with the Daily News in New York over the course of three days. They had it on the front page. I did Morning Joe. I did local TV. I talked about it everywhere.

And do you know what the union’s response was? They just said, it wasn’t true. They said it wasn’t true. They said the reporting wasn’t true. They didn’t try to make excuses or justify it, or have an argument in support of it. They just said it wasn’t true. They just lied. And I didn’t know how to respond. I could have argued if they had argued with me. But they didn’t. They just lied. But I had the evidence. I had these documents right here that show this to be true. And they just said it wasn’t. And there was no accountability. And I guess it was a shock to me. Because I had covered politics for a long time. I was a White House correspondent. I was on Capitol Hill. I had covered a million campaigns. I had been lied to plenty. (laughter) I had always felt that even at the highest levels of government, when you exposed a lie, when you caught someone, there was some accountability. Somebody would pay for it. And my first encounter with the teachers union, I felt there was no accountability. There was this special interest that had all of this power, and they could lie without consequence.

So I have since founded a nonprofit in New York that tries to put a spotlight on some of these policies and laws that are incredibly destructive. And tries to use the media platform, because that’s all I know how to do really, to educate parents about what goes on between the education bureaucracy and the special interests and how these deals get made, how these decisions get made, that have a direct impact on kids, that parents have no say in, and no part in the debate or discussion around.

I also serve on the board of the Success Academy Charter Network in New York. It’s been an interesting year for charter schools so far in New York. And Success Academy in particular I should say. We elected a mayor who doesn’t really side with us on many of these issues, but his attempt to shut down one of our schools and to prevent us from opening two new schools backfired. It galvanized parents who were part of our charter school network. 11,000 parents got on buses, took their kids, took the day off from school, went to Albany. And they held this incredible rally. The governor and the Legislature listened to them and passed a charter school bill this year that gave these schools greater support and more protection hopefully to operate for years to come. (applause)

There’s still a lot of work on the political side to be done. But as frustrating, I think, as this can be, at times, this was one of those moments where you know nothing is as inspiring, nothing makes me want to stand up and cheer more than seeing a parent fight for their kid.

Faith (the tax credit scholarship mom from Florida, who spoke earlier), you are my hero. (applause)

Here’s to winning more battles on behalf of parents and children.