bait-and-switch

Campbell Brown's abusive-teachers war preceded Twitter spat

Campbell Brown testified before the state's Education Reform Commission on the issue of teachers found to have abused children last week.

Campbell Brown says she’s done using Twitter to provoke union leaders into a debate.

After a furious 48-hour exchange this week with AFT President Randi Weingarten, in which the 140-character messages quickly elevated into charges of sexism and conflicted interests, Brown said she wants the next showdown to be face-to-face.

“I’d love to sit down with Randi and have a real debate,” Brown said this morning in a phone interview. But she added a caveat. “There’s nothing to debate.”

In less than a week, Brown, a former NBC White House correspondent and CNN anchor, has gone from largely unknown in education advocacy to the center of a heated war of words with union leaders over how to handle teachers suspected of — and found guilty of — sexual misconduct with students. She outlined her case in a provocatively headlined column in Sunday’s Wall Street Journal.

But the op/ed wasn’t Brown’s first public statement about the issue of sexual predators in schools. A week ago, she delivered a surprising testimony on the issue before Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Education Reform Commission during its New York City meeting.

Not everyone who asked to speak was given a chance to. But Brown had been given the top speaking slot on the “teacher quality” panel with testimony that coupled concern about sex abuse with statistics about low student test scores and college-readiness rates.

The speech she delivered was significantly different.

She had done away with discussion about student performance and added in three examples — complete with names and salacious details — of teachers who have not been fired despite being found to have behaved inappropriately.

After the meeting, Brown told GothamSchools why she had revised her testimony.

“I don’t think it was really what they were planning to focus on,” she said. “But if we’re going to address quality, this certainly falls under it.”

Brown, a mother of two children who aren’t quite school-aged, said she became interested in the issue as she read more and more of the city’s tabloid headlines that detailed cases where teachers who were found to have acted inappropriately were allowed to return to the classroom. She said recent events were decisive.

“I think in the context of the Sandusky stuff, it was just really getting to me,” she said, referring to the Penn State football coach convicted of molesting many young boys, even after some of his supervisors knew about allegations against him. “I mean how could it not?”

Since the op-ed, Brown has become the subject of heightened attention, both positive and negative. She appeared that morning on Morning Joe, whose host, Joe Scarborough, is a vocal critic of teachers unions. Then she took to Twitter, where she reached out to Weingarten.

“Why is teachers union protecting teachers who commit sexual misconduct?” Brown tweeted to Weingarten.

Weingarten responded by accusing her of doing the dirty work of an advocacy group that supports many policies that teachers unions oppose. Weingarten suggested that Brown had gone on the attack because her husband, Dan Senor, is a board member of StudentsFirstNY, which jumped into the fight to defend Brown on Twitter.

Speaking today, Campbell acknowledged that her campaign against the teachers union could have been handled better, beginning with a full disclosure of her relationship with Senor, a top advisor to presidential candidate Mitt Romney, and his role at StudentsFirstNY.

“You know what?” Brown said today in a phone interview. “In retrospect, I totally wish I had.”

She added, “But at the end of the day does it really matter? Because that doesn’t change the issue. Everybody should be on the same page here.”

Brown also defended herself against Weingarten’s charge that her husband’s role had influenced her opinions.

“Give me a break,” Brown said. “I’ve been a journalist for 20 years. Nobody uses me. That’s really insulting. You want to attack me personally, that’s just a pathetic attempt to distract from the real issue. What they’re doing is defending sexual predators.”

A UFT spokesman said today that the union’s position is sticking to its long-standing position: There should be zero-tolerance for sex abuse of students, but that a bill proposed this year in New York would erode due process for teachers without making students safer. Weingarten said she was traveling and would be not be available to speak.

Brown urged the commission to make the legislation a top priority. Today, she said she was hopeful that the union would come around eventually and that Weingarten could lead the effort.

“She’s very influential,” Brown said. “If she dives into this, my gosh, nothing would make me happier.”

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.