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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

School & District Management Opinion

Cami Anderson and the Forces of Unreason

By Rick Hess — November 14, 2014 2 min read
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Yesterday, Newark superintendent Cami Anderson came to AEI to give a talk. The talk had to be relocated and the logistics modified because a busload of Anderson critics pledging to disrupt the event followed her from Newark--accompanied by banners, train whistles, and a track record of confrontations and disturbances. (Lyndsey Layton provides a good write-up on all this, and the larger Newark debate, in this morning’s Washington Post. And you can see Anderson’s talk and conversation with me here.)

Ironically, the event came about because I’d raised some questions about Newark school reform. I wrote an Ed Week op-ed back during the summer that suggested Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million gift to Newark was in many ways a cautionary tale of the mistakes that philanthropists make. In the course of that piece, I was indirectly critical of some of what Newark has been doing. Anderson, a friend who has been superintendent of New Jersey’s largest school system since 2011, argued that my depiction of Newark was unfair and inaccurate. We discussed all of this and agreed that the school district hadn’t done a great job of sharing some of what she was telling me. So, I invited her to come down to AEI, offer her perspective and some of the results from Newark, and talk about the lessons being learned.

The event was to be an examination of Newark and the lessons it holds--not a celebration of Anderson’s effort. As per usual, the session was to include a presentation by Anderson on her “One Newark” strategy, and then more than an hour of conversation and questions. Is Newark’s strategy the right one? Is it working? That’s what discussions like this are for. Should the governor control Newark’s schools? Is Anderson the right person to be superintendent? Good questions, all. Well worth discussing and debating in the nation’s capital.

The whole point of public debate in a free nation is that reasonable people routinely disagree with one another. They’re going to have different concerns, know different things, and look at facts in different ways. That’s why I seek to provide a forum where leaders and thinkers can make their case, whether I agree with them or not. Over the years, I’ve hosted “reformers” including the likes of Arne Duncan, Rod Paige, Joel Klein, Kaya Henderson, Michelle Rhee, John Deasy, Jim Shelton, John White, Deb Gist, Howard Fuller, and Campbell Brown. I’ve hosted those who come at things very differently, such as Randi Weingarten, Diane Ravitch, Dennis van Roekel, Lily Eskelsen Garcia, Debbie Meier, Carol Burris, Kevin Welner, and Larry Cuban. In my mind, this is part of what think tanks are for. In all of that time, through a slew of controversial personalities, we have never encountered a group so dead-set on trying to stop someone from simply being heard as this coterie from Newark.

I find it disturbing that Anderson’s detractors treat her as viciously as they do. It’s unfortunate that they have so rarely been called out for vitriolic and even threatening tactics. But it’s the hypocrisy that bothers me the most. A group that claims it is disenfranchised and silenced, and wants only to be heard, adopts tactics that stifle debate. Yet it tends to get a pass because some reporters who seem to have a soft spot for self-styled protesters also seem disinclined to call these rabble-rousers out for what they are: enemies of free speech, civil discourse, and reasoned debate.

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