How did an ex–news anchor become the most controversial woman in school reform?
These days, the energy in reform is with those who are taking the fight to the courts. Mayors, chancellors, and the rest of the Albany Establishment are too entangled in political interests to make change, the activists claim, and education reform's best chance is to bring lawsuits to challenge teacher tenure as unconstitutional.
Brown is their unlikely public face. Tenure, she says, violates students' rights to an equal education, protecting bad teachers and preventing productive turnover. Enshrining that legal principle, of true equal opportunity for every student, would presumably require a much fuller and more radical transformation of the school system than the one reformers envision—or even really support. But anti-tenure litigants won their first suit in California this summer, and Brown plans to help file suitsin two more states this year and ten in total over the next five years. Her first big day in New York court comes on January 14, when lawyers for her Partnership for Educational Justice will address the state's motion to dismiss its suit. It's unlikely her group will win, but the New York State chancellor has already announced plans to rethink tenure.
Even in school reform's new lawsuit era, hand-to-hand combat is still the preferred mode of resolving—or not resolving—conflict. Brown has become the latest vilified figure in a decades-long PR battle—between the teachers union, one of the last powerful unions in the U.S., and "reformers"—to rival the ugliest type of corporate warfare. That battle can be high-minded; Randi Weingarten, the head of the American Federation of Teachers, says schools are doing fine: "New York's graduation rates have increased by double digits since 2001, and New Yorkers still prize their public schools." And the fight can be low-minded: The union has denigrated Brown as a patsy for her husband, and a pair of union-backed lobbying groups set up a website where she's portrayed as a puppet being manipulated by two bankers with "1%" lapel pins. (Whether the union had anything to do with the site getting picked up by Twitter spambots seems an open question.)
"They say I don't have standing to comment on schools because of my appearance and who I'm married to, and I say that's just pathetic," says Brown. "They don't want to engage in a debate because they have no argument." As for operatives who have said inflammatory things, such as that Brown's tabloid-ready charge that unions are protecting sexual predators in the teacher corps was "equivalent to a blood libel"? She waves a hand. "I've covered the White House and been yelled at by presidents," she says. "If people in power are pissed, it usually means you are doing something right."