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September 17, 2015

Campbell Brown's keynote speech to The Business Council's Annual Meeting

I want to start by telling you a story – a true story. But I’m changing some names to protect some of those in the story.

One of the great perks of television --  about being on TV is you get your hair done everyday. I have curly, frizzy hair and it was pretty wonderful.

At the Today show where I worked – there were lots of hair and make up people on staff. I became very close friends with a woman we will call Christy. She always did my hair. We were both single when we first met. She got pregnant – she became a single mom.

She didn’t make much money – always struggling to find daycare so she would bring her little boy who we will call Jack to work. Sometimes he would sit in my lap while she did my hair.

When Jack became school age, Christy began looking at the schools in her neighborhood to figure out where he would go. I remember her coming to work in a panic one day because she had found out – school she was zoned for was one of the worst in the city – it was a terrible school. She was desperately trying to find other options.

I remember she looked at a Catholic school nearby – but it was too expensive. I remember looking up charter schools to see if that was an option for her – I think it was the first time I had heard of a charter school.

It’s hard to describe how desperate she was feeling then – scared. I don’t think I fully appreciated it at the time. Then one day she came into work with big smile on her face. And she said, I have great news! I figured out what to do about the school problem.

I wondered if she had gotten more money – or gotten into a charter school. She said – I cut a deal with someone we will call Marie. Marie was this very wealthy woman who lived on the upper east side of Manhattan. Christy did her hair all the time. And it just so happened that the neighborhood where Marie lived was zoned for one of the best public schools in the city.

Christy said – I agreed to do Marie’s hair for the rest of her life for free – if she let me claim her address as mine. For the rest of her life.
And she said it like – isn’t this the best news ever! Cause – she would have done anything. Just like I would have done anything for my kids.

Her little boy did go to that school – until my friend was finally making more money and able to send him to the good Catholic school near their home.

One the one hand this is an incredible story – and on the other hand its actually not. It’s unremarkable. Because my friend is just like me. And just like the other mothers in this room – the other fathers in this room. We all just want what’s best for our kids. We all want them to have a shot at a better life.

Christy’s story is a story we have to tell. It’s part of the reason that I founded the Seventy-Four – new education news site – that I hope will give us – all of us who care about this issue a platform to tell these stories.

And through these stories make our case – in the most powerful and most persuasive way that something has to change.

That every child deserves a chance in life – the opportunity only a decent education can provide.
And that no mother should ever feel that they have to break the law to give their child that chance.

The Seventy-Four is non-partisan – we will not tell anyone who to vote for – but we are not neutral. We believe the education should be about kids – first and foremost. And that view makes us part of this fight.

It is important to understand that this really is a fight -- So I want to first talk a little bit about what’s at stake… and why I believe that not shying away from the politics – no matter how many protesters show up at your door -- is so important.

I was reading something last night and I came across this statistic:
65% of the jobs that our kids will have when they grow up – do not currently exist. Think about that.

Technology and automation are transforming our lives. It is happening so fast. It’s scary sometimes. And its also unstoppable.
Our country is going through a massive economic transition. And its unstoppable.

Globalization is unstoppable. We are competing with the world.

Convincing Americans that we must raise our standards – that school has to be harder – that we have to prepare kids for a 21st century economy – AND that we cannot ignore the achievement gap and leave poor children behind -- is critical. It is critical to the future of this country.

And yet look at where we are:

In our country today:

About 30% of students are proficient in English and 38% in math.
But the real story is in the vast population of poor kids in our cities:

Put New York City aside for a second, little more than 10% of students in our Big 5 cities were proficient in English. FEWER than 10% in
Rochester and Syracuse were proficient in either math or English – not even one in ten.

New York City’s numbers are higher, about one-third – we still have relatively large numbers of affluent parents who send their children to neighborhood schools.

But in the Bronx, in upper Manhattan, in East New York: where kids have no social capital, the results continue to be massive failure.
In about half of elementary schools, at least three-quarters of students scored below proficient in reading or math.

94 schools – more schools than most cities have – 94 had entire grades in which not a single student achieved at grade level.

In a speech today the Mayor announced a number of worthy initiatives – expanding computer science, increasing college readiness and pledging that every child will read at grade level by third grade.

On the face of it, all good. Everyone agrees – all the research shows – that third-grade literacy is THE critical indicator of future success.

That’s why every big city school superintendent around the country makes it a core priority for their district. FROM THE START.

In Philadelphia, 100% literacy in third grade is what they call an “anchor goal.” In Cleveland it’s called “the Third Grade Literacy Guarantee.”

In the bay area it’s “Oakland reads 2020.” in Houston it’s “Literacy by 3.”

What’s not clear is why it took de Blasio 21 months, nearly halfway through his term, to add it to his agenda and get on board with the rest of the country.

Better late than never? Yes. Will these proposals create a more equitable system? Not a chance without much bigger changes to the way schools are run. A cluster of programs is not a vision.

Which seems crazy at first because de
Blasio is known primarily for what sounds like a vision – building a more equitable society.

I believe the reason he can’t describe what that looks like for NYC’s public schools and their students is because education policies designed not to offend the union will not improve equity for poor kids.

(And by the way, the union DOES have a vision.)

What concerns me is that today’s politically pressured announcement by our Mayor will distract from the truly important, politically difficult reforms that he refuses to consider.

Look at where the administration has failed to act. On teacher quality – including those third grade reading teachers – the evidence has been clear for years.

We know that nothing is more important than having a good teacher – there are a million studies to show it – but unions are based on the idea that teachers are all the same, get paid the same, advance the same, the only contingency is how long you’ve been at it.

Policies to support doing absolutely everything we can to give children the best teachers ought to resonate with someone like de Blasio, who has built his name on ending what he calls the “quiet crisis” of inequality.

But the actual experience of the Mayor and his chancellor, Carmen Farina, are a set of policies that perpetuate if not worsen prospects for poor children.

Early on, de Blasio signaled his intentions – and wasted a huge opportunity -- in giving teachers an 18% salary increase but failing to negotiate meaningful work rule changes.

Don’t get me wrong, I favor much higher salaries for teachers. But not without accountability, not just for showing up. Good teachers should make more. Teachers who excel in poor neighborhoods should make more. Salary increases should be a performance incentive, not a guarantee for hanging around.

That’s how any compensation designed around the success of children would look.

But that’s not in the de Blasio contract.

He could also have addressed a principal’s ability to assemble and maintain the best staff for his or her school -- management 101, right?

Yet the contract did nothing to rollback LIFO – the longevity-based law that forces school leaders to make layoffs based on seniority rather than quality.

Nor did the contract help schools quickly dismiss proven poor performers – even when supported by evaluations. It can takes years and, typically, hundreds of thousands of dollars to remove a grossly ineffective teacher.

Veteran principals DO find ways to remove these teachers from classrooms, but they find jobs at other schools or doing low-level administrative work at full pay.

POOR principals allow these teachers to remain in classrooms.

The large number of low-rated teachers find homes in our poorest schools – in the classrooms of children who MOST need star educators.

That’s an inequity that everyone recognizes. But the Mayor chose not to fix.

His efforts to improve the very worst schools have been confused and irrelevant. He has created many more union jobs while leaving principals wondering if he will follow through on promises to deliver resources.

Many of the worst of the worst – the so-called Renewal schools – actually posted worse scores after their first year in his Renewal program.

The mayor right now is desperate to win a multi-year mayoral control over city schools from the legislature–- it would be politically devastating for him to lose. That is why he gave the speech today. It’s why he is trying to show Albany he is serious about reform.

But real reform means rebuilding NYC schools, at every step, around what most helps kids.

That means taking on the union and machine politicians. There is no way around it.

AND – finding someone who can implement those much needed changes. Someone who can modernize our public schools with the urgency needed.

Unfortunately, that person is not the current chancellor – NYC veteran Carmen Farina.

She’s considered by many to be a great educator, which I don’t doubt. That’s why she was chosen.

To her credit she’s been strong on the Common Core all along and good on testing.

But in her current role – her job has been mainly to serve as a union-approved caretaker.

70% of the kids in her schools – hundreds of thousands of kids, mostly poor and of color –are behind in reading and math. 70% are behind-- and yet she has no sense of urgency.

Nor even the sense that she has looked everything over and decided not to be urgent. She just goes along in the moment – it is always quote “a beautiful day” as she said, tellingly, during a blizzard last year.

She is untroubled by new ideas or even facts. She announced that charters were pushing out high-needs children but would not back it up with data.

After a nationally recognized study conducted by independent social science experts found Mayor Bloomberg’s small schools to have increased graduation rates, she dismissed it as merely quote -- “one view of things. There are many views about everything”, she said.

Yes, there are.

It may be naive to think that Bill de Blasio will ever become serious about education.

BUT because little more than 18 months have passed, because under political pressure he has put on the table new measures – because at some point have to show results --
and because i want to be hopeful –

I humbly suggest that he find someone who knows what citywide improvement looks like. And that person is not Carmen Farina.

She said at the start she was ambivalent about taking the job. Well bless her, but let’s now get someone who isn’t ambivalent.

Let the mayor – who famously loves consensus -- prove that he’s independent enough and solid enough to bring a big thinker and great manager in. Someone whose talents are commensurate with the challenges.

New leadership is urgently needed. And I hope he will consider it.

That brings me to charter schools.
High performing charter schools have become a beacon of hope for children – for families around the country.

I sit on the board of Success Academies – it’s the highest performing charter school network in New York City.

The vast majority of our kids are low income – most are minority. 77% are on free or reduced-price lunch programs.

And yet – they consistently perform in the top 1% of all in New York state schools in math. In the top 3% in reading.

These schools are a lifeboat for the most disadvantaged kids in NYC. And parents know it. We had 22,000 applications for 3,000 seats at our schools.

And there are many other charters and charter networks with great results in the city – KIPP, Achievement First, Uncommon Schools, Democracy Prep, the Icahn schools. There are fantastic choices for New York kids – just not nearly enough to meet the need.

But while charter schools are public schools – relying on public dollars. They are NOT union schools.

When it comes to charter schools our Mayor hasn’t just been passive – he has been very active.

Just two months into his term -- he tried to shut down three Success Academy charter schools.
One of them, a poor school that was also the state’s number one performer in math.

I will never be able to understand how any person could ever justify trying to shut down the highest performing school serving the poorest kids – and for one reason--  to appease a special interest.

We have to fight for these schools.
I wish we didn’t.  Because it’s really amazing to me that there could be anything controversial about what they are achieving.

It amazes me that there are people in the world – including New York City’s mayor and school chancellor as well as whole pile of Albany lawmakers -- who want to put a chokehold on one of the most exciting and effective things happening in public education.

And because of their actions – many of us have learned a critical lesson, it is that keeping these schools open, operating and growing is a battle— every single day and it is not going away.

It is not going away because there is no compromise possible.

In my previous life, I was a reporter for NBC News for 11 years – CNN for almost 3. I was hired for my first network job by Tim Russert – a wonderful man -- who trained me in the ways of old school journalism.

Back then I went to work believing that basically both sides had some merit – and deserved a fair hearing – and my job was essentially to referee the match.

But sometimes you stare at a problem – and you say, I’m sorry, both sides don’t have merit. And when the lives of children are literally hanging in the balance – you can’t play referee.

We have to do what is right. And that means we truly have no choice. There is no compromise is possible.
And when people say to me why – why no compromise – why draw a line in the sand that leads to protesters at your door. When people say that – I try to say this:

Set aside what you think about Bill de Blasio for a minute.

And let’s try – just try --  to assume the best of motives all around. Because even if you do -- we are just dealing here with two vastly different views. 

You cannot reconcile the view that good charters are a force for good, and the view that they are a threat. 

If we believe that they serve the best interests of children, then every attempt to stop them or to limit them -- is a limit on that good influence – and why should we ever accept a compromise like that? 

This is not a complicated problem. It does not take a team of mediators to figure out. There is just no middle ground.

Our elected officials—don’t have an excuse-- they have a choice --  between making a comfortable interest group more comfortable, or being a true force for good in the lives of our children. 

They have a choice.
They can protect the STATUS QUO, or protect the PUBLIC INTEREST, but you can’t do both. 

You can fight charters as a threat to union privilege, or you can embrace reform and be a real leader. But you can’t do both.

Those on the other side keep telling us that charters are not the answer.  They ask, “What about the 95 percent of kids who can’t attend charters?” 

Well, no one is saying that every public school student should be moved into a charter.  All we say is that the excellence of these great charter schools should be moved into every public school.  They are right about one thing – it is a fairness issue:

In a rational world, our traditional public schools would see the example of schools like Success Academies and follow it, instead of just resenting it. 

In a rational world -- principals would be able to put the best people in the classrooms, without rules restricting them that have nothing to do with the quality of learning.

In a rational world, a school employee found guilty of sexual misconduct with a child – or guilty of physically hurting a child would be gone. We do not live in a rational world.

This is the issue that first prompted me to speak out publicly on this.

I read this story one day in one of the NYC tabloids. And it listed 14 teachers found guilty of sexual misconduct with kids and still had their jobs. Think about that as a parent. Imagine for a minute that your child is in that teachers class?

This happens as a result of a crazy state law that is supported by the teachers union that gives tenured teachers protections no other public employee has – making it near impossible to remove an abusive employee – much less a grossly ineffective teacher.

As a mother – this offended me. Largely because I knew I could protect my kids from this – I had the means and the power. The VICTIMS are the most under-priveledged children who have no one fighting for them.

So—this being my first foray into the education wars – I thought – we’ll develop a campaign – we’ll bring attention to this outrage and we’ll  change the system – because WHO, I naively thought who would dare defend a system that puts the rights of child molesters before the rights of kids.

We launched a campaign. We got some attention with the campaign. But we didn’t change a damn thing. There is a bill that has been sitting in Albany for three years now—and since we have not convinced our legislators that we can compete with the teachers union -- no one in Albany has the courage to do anything to do with it.

Think about the absurdity of this for a second. We actually had to wage a campaign to win political support to remove sex predators from our classrooms. And we haven’t been successful yet!

The repeated failures of Albany to do anything – to take any meaningful action to reform the system --  is what brought the Vergara legal case in CA to my attention. Vergara versus the state of CA. There a group of parents challenged teacher tenure, Last-In First-Out Seniority Rules and the same special dismissal protections that we have here in NY. They challenged these laws on constitutional grounds – arguing that these laws deny children their constitutional right to a decent education.

And they won – a judge agreed with them. And that decision has given hope to parents around the country. Hope that when your legislators are owned by a special interest – you can ask a judge to do what is legally and morally right.
So I founded a non-profit that is supporting parents here in NY who have replicated that case. Its called the Partnership for Educational Justice. The parents are suing the state of New York, the city of New York and the teachers union has intervened as a defendant as well.

The parents are challenging tenure, LIFO and dismissal protections on constitutional grounds. They are being represented by Jay Lefkowitz and an amazing legal team at Kirkland Ellis. Kirkland is doing this case pro bono – because the people there believe that this is simply the right thing to do.

When the lawsuit was filed – I lost count of how many people told me – you know, they got lucky out in California – they got lucky with a good judge. You will never find a New York judge who will let this case go forward.

And yet when the state, the city and union filed their motion to have the case dismissed – the judge ruled against them – saying “This court will not close the courthouse door to parents and children with viable constitutional claims.”

Round one – we won. But we still a long way to go. The state, the city and union have appealed his decision and that case will continue to make its way through the courts.

And the very fact that we have to go to court to try to get an abusive teacher or a failing teacher out of the classroom is just screwed up.

This is a screwed up system. It is corrupt. It is failing.

And the other side is nothing if not relentless in keeping control over it.  Which means we have to be just as relentless in the mission that should bring us all together.

It is the simple belief that -- If any parent wants to find a better school to give their children a better life, that should be nobody’s choice but theirs, and no one should stand in the way.

The good news is—Because of what schools like Success and the other great charters have achieved – there are thousands of parents today who have a choice and who are making their voices heard.

They are the competition now --
And you can tell when others are on the losing side of an issue because what they fear most is competition.

They hate schools like Success because the example shows what every school can be, for every girl and boy. 

By saving children and giving them a chance, these schools only remind everyone what those kids are being saved from an education system that lost its way.

I just want to end with one thought:

This really is not about fighting the teachers union. The teachers union is out there tonight just doing what you would expect it to do – protecting and defending all teachers good and bad—above all else.

It’s not about them. But it IS about our political leaders. In New York City and in Albany. And letting our political leaders know – that this is a test of who they are. That this is right versus wrong – that there is no middle ground.

It is letting them know that whatever political wheeling and dealing takes place – these decisions have a direct impact on the lives of these children.

So whether you speak to politicians directly – through your campaign contributions – or through your support for wonderful charter schools around the state – we must say to our leaders:

We can never accept a deal that compromises a child’s future. Because a child’s hopes and dreams will never be ours to compromise away.

I’m proud to serve on the board of Success Academies.

I’m proud to support the litigation in NY, CA and elsewhere that will hopefully lead to much-needed disruption of this broken system.

And I’m proud to have launched the Seventy-Four—which I hope will help drive the education debate in this country.

This is a cause that deserves everything we can give it, and that’s the reason I’m all in.  Hope you will be too.