I recently admonished former U.S. Department of Education undersecretary Diane Ravitch for making what I considered sexist remarks seeking to discredit former CNN journalist Campbell Brown’s credibility on education issues. Brown founded New York’s Parent Transparency Project and is championing the newly formed Partnership for Educational Justice, dedicated to supporting the latest challenge to overturn teacher employment and dismissal laws, including tenure.
Following the successful outcome of the Vergara v. California lawsuit, in which nine California students – backed by Silicon Valley tech millionaire Dave Welch – challenged five teacher employment and dismissal laws as unconstitutional, the Partnership quickly filed a copycat lawsuit, Wright v. New York.
But something rather awkward happened in Brown’s first media appearance, on Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report.” When questioned by host Stephen Colbert, she refused to identify who was funding the effort. There is no law mandating disclosure. But in politics, perception becomes reality, and the electorate sides with sunshine in understanding money trails. “What’s to hide?” they wonder.
It’s not easy, or cheap, to challenge the education status quo. It takes money to challenge the most powerful special interest blocking education reform – teachers unions – who command auspicious war chests. In California, this amounts to some $300 million annually, a good portion of which is spent to prevent erosion of teacher employment protections.
It’s estimated that Vergara cost the plaintiffs’ side upward of $3 million – underwritten by wealthy individuals – referred to as “limousine liberals” by critics. While politically connected donors may be motivated by varying interests, the end result is the same: Kids (who don’t pay union dues) succeed when laws are changed that put their interests first.
So why not just acknowledge that it takes money to fight money? Yet, Brown – married to a conservative GOP donor – blundered when Colbert pressed her to identify her money train. During the taping, several moms peacefully protested outside, waving handmade placards decrying Brown’s efforts. These moms were likely aligned with teachers unions, but they had every right to challenge her.
Brown declined to identify her donors, saying, “I’m not gonna reveal who the donors are because the [protesters are] trying to silence our parents who want to have a voice in this debate.” It didn’t take long for her opponents to emphasize she was the one speaking on national television. Brown elaborated, “[Opponents are] going to go after people who are funding this, and I think this is a good cause … and if someone wants to contribute to this cause without having to put their name on it so they can become a target of the … [protesters] then I respect that.”
Be honest and transparent with the public, Campbell. Those big donors aren’t exactly helpless, and protecting the injection of “secret, dark money” in any campaign only backfires. We just saw a court challenge in California over big money from unidentified sources influencing a 2012 ballot initiative I actually supported on its merits. Sadly, the “dark” money hurt the cause because the opposition successfully maneuvered public opinion to focus on the money trail, not the issue. Silence won’t help the cause. Open up the books.
About the Author: Gloria Romero, a Los Angeles resident, served in the California Legislature from 1998 to 2008, the last seven years as Senate majority leader. This article originally appeared in the Orange County Register and is republished here with permission from the author.