A few years ago, when I began speaking out about the destructive policies that are now called “education reform,” I had the comfort of knowing that no one could punish me. I didn’t want a job, I didn’t want a political appointment, and I didn’t want a foundation grant.
Imagine my surprise, therefore, when I learned on June 5 that I would not be reappointed as a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Bear with me. This is an unpaid position, so it does not represent a loss of income. But I was sad nonetheless, because I had a long association with Brookings and loved the institution.
I have been affiliated with Brookings since 1993. At that time, Bruce McLaury, then the institution’s president, came to visit me in my office at the U.S. Department of Education to offer me the Brown Chair in Education Policy, a newly created position. I told him I did not want to live permanently in Washington, D.C., and looked forward to returning to my home in Brooklyn after nearly two years as assistant secretary for research in the George H.W. Bush administration. But I was interested in working at Brookings for a time and writing a book there.
So McLaury appointed me as a senior fellow, and I spent two years writing a book on national standards. I returned to New York City in 1995 and retained a close relationship with Brookings. I organized annual research conferences and edited the papers presented there as Brookings Papers on Education Policy.
By 2005, I decided to spend full time writing so I stepped down as conference organizer and editor. For the past seven years, I have held the title of non-resident senior fellow.
Two years ago, when my most recent book The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education was published, I contacted Grover (Russ) Whitehurst to ask if I might present my findings at Brookings. Russ was my counterpart in the George W. Bush administration. I had been the assistant secretary in charge of the Office of Education Research and Improvement, he was the head of the successor agency, called the Institute of Education Sciences. Unlike me, he had accepted the offer to take the Brown Chair at Brookings.
I thought that Brookings was the right place to launch my new book, in view of my long association with the institution. I contacted Russ to make arrangements, but he said that I would have to rent the auditorium and pay a variety of expenses, which would amount to thousands of dollars. I decided not to accept this expensive offer, and I soon received a request from Rick Hess to present my book at the American Enterprise Institute. I agreed, and AEI sponsored an event with an excellent panel of respondents that drew a full house to its auditorium. AEI paid all expenses, including the cost of my travel to D.C. The fact that AEI was sponsoring a discussion challenging some of its own conservative ideas reflected well on its commitment to intellectual freedom.
Over the past two years, I have done what Brookings expects of its senior fellows: I engaged in public policy debates at the highest levels. Although I was one of the most active participants in the education issues of the day, I was never invited to take part in any panels or public events at Brookings.
Then on June 5 came the email from Russ Whitehurst informing me that I would be terminated as a non-resident senior fellow because I was inactive. Understand that it is impossible to be active at Brookings if you are never invited to participate in any of its forums.
My first thought was that Russ might be responding to my blog lacerating Mitt Romney’s education plan in the New York Review of Books. It went online that very morning, about four hours before I got Russ’s email. Russ is an adviser to the Romney campaign on education issues. Would he react that quickly? Then I remembered that I had written two other pieces critical of Romney on my own blog, the first appearing on May 25.
Maybe I was over-reacting.
But then I began wondering whether I was “inactive,” as Russ said. My book—the one he had no interest in discussing at Brookings—had become a national best seller. On the very day that I got his email, it happened to be the #1 book in public policy on amazon.com. It was also the #1 book in social policy on amazon.com. The night before I got his email, I was interviewed on the PBS Newshour. This is the kind of public engagement that Brookings revels in.
There was nothing more to be said or done. I was terminated.
Brookings should be sponsoring debates and panels about the very issues that I raise. It is now clear those debates and panels will never take place. That is sad, far sadder than my termination.