WASHINGTON – Campbell Brown, an education reform advocate, says legal efforts are needed to do away with unduly protections for incompetent teachers that prevent student access to quality education.
Brown, a former CNN anchor, is supporting the lawsuit of eight New York families challenging teacher tenure, dismissal and seniority laws in the state.
“What we want is a system that supports, protects and properly pays good teachers and makes it possible in a responsible and fair way to remove teachers judged to be incompetent or abusive – that’s it,” Brown said during a recent speech at the American Enterprise Institute. “And the laws in the books right now in New York all work against that incredibly important goal.”
In New York, school administrators decide whether to grant tenure after a teacher has been on the job for three years, and if granted, the teacher has a job for life. State seniority laws aimed to protect veteran teachers put new teachers first in line for layoffs, regardless of job performance. Laws governing teacher dismissal mandate that tenured teachers can be dismissed only after just cause has been established through a series of administrative hearings.
Brown recently founded the Partnership for Education Justice to overturn policies that make it nearly impossible to fire incompetent teachers.
“I’m in this fight because I believe there is no debate about the fact that all children deserve a decent education,” she said. “The single most important school-based factor for ensuring that they get that education is to have an effective teacher in the classroom.”
Brown’s campaign will be modeled on the recent Vergara v. California lawsuit, which dealt a significant blow to teachers’ unions last month. In that case, a state judge struck down California’s tenure system and other job protections embedded in state law. The teachers’ unions and Gov. Jerry Brown are appealing the decision.
Brown described her group’s strategy as threefold: pressuring politicians, raising awareness, and turning to the legal system when necessary.
“Our goal here is not to be litigious,” Brown said. Instead, she said, the group plans to launch targeted lawsuits that can “shake the system up in a lasting and beneficial way.”
Brown noted, however, that history has shown that in the intersection between politics and education courts have often been called when “school administrators, school boards, mayors, and legislators fail to act.”
“The courts provide a hearing of the facts, and that’s all we want,” she said.
David Boies, who helped lead the legal team that won a Supreme Court victory allowing same-sex marriages to resume in California, became the chairman of the organization over the summer.
Boies told the Washington Post that he is developing a state-by-state strategy similar to the one used in the fight for gay marriage. He said bringing arguments in state courts could help lay the groundwork for an eventual Supreme Court case.
“Our initial approach is state law,” he said. “And we’ll see how much progress we can make using state law.”
Teachers’ unions have long counted on Democrats as their staunchest allies, helping President Obama win both the 2008 and 2012 elections. But high-profile Democrats have recently taken stands in support of lawsuits against teachers’ unions, highlighting the rift between the teachers’ unions and the Democrats.
Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), the top Democrat on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, said the Vergara decision puts on notice policies that “constrain the ability of schools to put the very best teachers in front of the children that need them the most.”
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan hailed the ruling, writing in a blog post that “awarding tenure to someone without a track record of improving student achievement doesn’t respect the craft of teaching, and it doesn’t serve children well.”
The divisions have only grown with the Obama administration’s embrace of charter schools, the use of student test scores to evaluate teachers, and other policies often supported by conservatives.
The Partnership for Educational Justice has hired a public relations agency, founded by former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs and former Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt, to lead the organization’s national public relations campaign.
Teachers’ unions have denounced the lawsuits as a blatant attempt to eliminate teachers’ due process rights, which they say protect teachers from unjust layoffs or firings.
“All around this country, there are real challenges to getting kids, particularly historically disenfranchised students, the educational opportunity, equity, support and services they need,” American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said in a July statement. “At the same time, those of us working overtime to make sure all kids have the opportunities they deserve and the educators they need are facing unrelenting attacks from some who scapegoat teachers to advance their agenda while remaining stunningly silent about the root causes of inequity in our schools.”
Brown dismissed these criticisms as “nonsensical” because tenure laws only add “an additional layer of protection.”
“This suit is not intended to erode any teacher’s right to due process, and it will not,” she said. “Our focus is not on due process, it’s on due progress.”
Brown also used the stage to address many of her opponents’ claims, but left the question about the identity of her organization’s donors unanswered. Recently, the Partnership for Educational Justice has been dogged by questions about its financial backers. Brown said she wants to protect the privacy of the donors and avoid people going after them.
“There is one reason I am getting asked this question,” she said. “If the other side has to argue with me on the merits, they will lose. They will always lose. Therefore, they have to create a distraction, a conspiracy theory, in order to take away attention from the fact that they have no argument.”