Playground Rules for the Public Square

As an advocate empowering public school parents to turn around failing schools, I often encounter personal attacks and outlandish conspiracy theories about why I do the work I do. As the parent power movement has developed and matured, these attacks have grown more intense and more focused on the colleagues and parents with whom I work.

But the recent breaking news of Dr. Diane Ravitch's preposterous assault on former newscaster Campbell Brown strikes a sad and ironic note of déjà vu, one where I expect Dr. Ravitch's own words will once again come back to haunt her.

Last year, Dr. Ravitch sentenced me to burn in Hell.

She wrote what is now an infamous blog post calling me a "loathsome" "useful idiot," then sentenced me to burn in Hell for committing the crime of helping a group of low-income public school parents bring in new leadership after four years of systemic failure.

I responded to Dr. Ravitch by telling my story. I wrote in The Huffington Post about my experience with education as a young boy, growing up in Greenwich Village and Venice Beach the son of struggling writers. I wrote about how the teachers at my high school in many ways saved my life when my alcoholic father killed himself a few days before the beginning of my junior year. I remember my principal and teachers calling me into a meeting on my first day back at school to tell me I wasn't alone. I remember them saying that they believed in me, that they would help me, and that they loved me. In many ways the support of those educators sustained me and helped me to achieve the same type of college and career success that all children have a right to expect.

I explained how this was personal for me -- that I wasn't going to apologize to Diane Ravitch or anyone else for helping low income parents, parents of color, and undocumented parents get the same kind of educational experience for their children that I needed as a child, and that I now expect for my own daughters as a public school father.

The next day Diane Ravitch apologized. And I haven't been sentenced to Hell since!

Honestly, I thought that experience had taught Dr. Ravitch a valuable lesson until I woke up one recent morning to read about her latest bizarre invective.

This is what Dr. Ravitch said about former CNN and Today Show anchor Campbell Brown, who now heads up a non-profit helping low income children trapped in failing schools defend their constitutional right to a quality public education:

"I  know it sounds sexist to say that she is pretty, but that makes her telegenic, even if what she has to say is total nonsense."

First, just a friendly piece of unsolicited advice: when your sentence begins with the phrase "I know it sounds sexist to say..." -- stop and immediately rethink the next words out of your mouth!

Diane Ravitch came of age during the same period as my mother in New York City: when Mad Men wasn't a TV show relegated to one hour of fiction on Sunday nights. It was a 24/7 reality show for many first generation women like Dr. Ravitch and my mother, who both struggled successfully to break down barriers so that future generations of women -- including my daughters -- could one day hope to be judged by their abilities rather than their appearance. Conversations with my mom opened my eyes to the dangers of sexism, however benign it might seem and from whatever source it might come.

Campbell Brown is a friend. I know her not only to be smart, but also a passionate advocate committed to the social justice inherent in her work. That doesn't make her right. But it does make Dr. Ravitch's sexist comments all the more outrageous.

However, this isn't about Hell or sexism or even dirty politics. It's about the example we set for our children.

Anyone who calls themselves a leader in the debate about the future of American public education should adhere to one simple rule: don't say anything in the public square you wouldn't be able to say on an elementary school playground.

If my eight-year-old daughter sentenced a fellow classmate to Hell or told another girl that she wasn't smart because she was pretty, she would rightfully be reprimanded not only by her educators, but also by me. We can't teach our children to reject bullying and embrace kindness if the people who call themselves educational leaders can't adhere to those same basic ground rules.

What is so disturbing about the reaction to Dr. Ravitch's comments is not that she has refused to back down, or even now appears to have doubled down. It is the cowardly silence of Ravitch's closest allies -- including the two women who run the largest teachers unions in the nation -- that makes this all the more appalling. If this kind of rhetoric is deemed acceptable, what isn't? What is the endgame other than escalation, hyperbole and more of the same broken status quo for our children?

We cannot reach the mountaintop unless we all march together and learn from each other. Parents, teachers, principals and administrators have a lot in common when it comes to a kids-first agenda. But we won't achieve our lofty goal unless we treat bullying and name-calling amongst educational leaders the same way we treat them on the schoolyard: zero tolerance.

Instead of invective and personal attacks, we need to begin with the premise that everyone on all sides -- including Dr. Ravitch -- are good people who care about kids. Then we need to engage in a robust and respectful debate about the future of American public education that is worthy of our children.

Re-imagining America's public education system for the 21st Century rooted in what's good for kids not powerful adults will require a radical sea change in our politics. And this will entail a long and arduous journey.

The first step of that journey must begin with an acknowledgment of our common humanity, a commitment to basic civility, and a recognition that nobody wins if our children lose.