Last Thursday, Campbell Brown appeared on the Stephen Colbert show to tout her support for a law suit challenging the teacher tenure laws of New York State. While many of my union colleagues appear from their social media comments to think that Colbert exposed her as an enemy of public education, and while at moments in her appearance I felt like throttling her for the patent inaccuracies of her comments, the fact of the matter is I believe her skills as a TV personality were clearly in evidence. To Colbert’s satiric challenges to her ideas about tenure, she responded with gracious laughter. When explaining why she was supporting this law suit, her facial expressions and body language conveyed a sincere empathy for the plight of disadvantaged children and a deeply felt moral commitment to help them. In short, to viewers opposed to due process for teachers, she puts an attractive, sympathetic face on their radical, right-wing ideas. To those who haven’t really thought about teacher tenure, I suspect she inoculated herself from those who will try to portray her as a flaming, right-wing radical. If we are going to beat her in the arena of public opinion, step one is to recognize that she is a skilled opponent.
Step two is to recognize that logic and facts may sadly not be the best tools against her. Her message is not aimed at our higher faculties. She appeals to our reflexive response to children in jeopardy. Why aren’t we doing something to help these kids who are not learning the things they will need to be productive adults. It’s the teacher union and their tenure laws that prevent us from helping these defenseless children.
So far about the best responses to that appeal to defend children in jeopardy are things like Diane Ravitch offered today, where she tells the story of the attempt to discharge a tenured New Jersey teacher for drawing attention to a sweetheart contract between his board of education and a relative of a board member. Responses like this (and I think that we have many like it), appeal to people’s sense of fairness. A video with this teacher telling his story and what it did to him and his family would be even better. Teachers intuitively believe that facts and figures win arguments. In politics, it’s often which side connects with the public’s emotions. Progressives tend to not want to believe that, but they do so to their disadvantage.