Campbell Brown doesn’t seem intimidating, and she certainly doesn’t put on airs. The former NBC Nightly News anchor and CNN host warmly greets visitors in person at her office in lower Manhattan. This is something of a necessity. Not only does she not have a receptionist, she doesn’t even have a regular office. Her new venture is being run out of a franchise of “WeWork,” a startup specializing in “collaborative workspaces,” which is a baroque way of saying she’s saving a few bucks by sharing an office with a bunch of unrelated businesses.
But don’t let this modest arrangement fool you: Brown’s new endeavor is all about kickstarting her ambitious plans to reshape the education debate in America. In June, she launched the Seventy Four, an online news agency with a staff of 14 dedicated to covering education reform. The name refers to the 74 million Americans under age 18 who stand to benefit from better schools. So far, the amount and breadth of content produced by the site is impressive. In addition to reporting on federal policy, the site has done lots of in-depth coverage of controversies and developments in local school districts, interviews with prominent education figures across the political spectrum, and investigations of corporate interests involved in education. And should the abundance of educational failures get you down, there are plenty of heartwarming and inspiring success stories about students’ achievements and public schools that succeed in spite of the odds.
By covering education all day every day, Brown hopes to foster a sense of urgency about improving American schools. Brown has promised that the site won’t shy away from advocacy and opinion—which it labels “opinion”—but at the same time she insists that her mission is not political. “My whole point about school reform is it’s not partisan. It’s not,” she says. “It’s a moral issue.”
The trouble is, the last thing America’s teachers’ unions want is real reform, and they certainly don’t want Campbell Brown leading the charge. Far from making education a moral issue, they’re counting on it remaining a partisan one.
In August, Brown organized an education reform forum in New Hampshire with six contenders for the GOP presidential nomination. It was a wide-ranging and informative discussion in a primary season where substantive policy discussions have been largely, uh, trumped. Brown was all set to hold a similar event with Democrats in Iowa on October 22 that was to have been cosponsored by the Des Moines Register. But the order came down from on high that Democrats were not to participate, and the forum was called off.
“What happened here is very clear: The teachers’ unions have gotten to these candidates,” Brown told Politico. “All we asked was that these candidates explain their vision for public education and how we address the inequality that leaves so many poor children behind. . . . President Obama certainly never cowered to the unions.”
In assessing just how much control teachers’ unions exert over Democrats, Brown was overgenerous to Obama. One of his first major acts as president was to appease unions by killing off the District of Columbia’s successful school choice program, which benefited poor black kids almost exclusively. (The Republican Congress later reinstated the program.) On the other hand, Obama hasn’t been completely hostile to education reform. He has backed charter schools and merit pay for teachers—that is, paying teachers based on their performance as opposed to union metrics unrelated to performance such as seniority. But even hugely popular reforms like these still face resistance from unions.
Flawed as it is, Obama’s record still contrasts favorably with those of previous Democratic standard-bearers. Campaigning for president in 2004, John Kerry came out for merit pay. Soon after, a leaked memo from National Education Association (NEA) president Reg Weaver explained he had met with Kerry to discuss supporting merit pay and confidently assured union members that the Democratic nominee “would not do so in the future.”
Since then, teachers’ unions have remained among the Democratic party’s most influential and energetic activists. In 2012, 16 percent of the delegates to the Democratic convention were teachers’ union members, and it’s hard to imagine things being different in 2016. The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) endorsed Hillary Clinton this summer, betraying a promise to hold off until a public meeting and angering the rank and file’s many Bernie Sanders supporters. But it’s safe to say that whoever the Democratic nominee is, teachers’ unions will largely be able to dictate the education agenda.