Fighting tenure for school teachers

David Trend

David Boies, the star trial lawyer who helped lead the legal charge that overturned California’s same-sex marriage ban, is becoming chairman of the Partnership for Educational Justice, a group that former CNN anchor Campbell Brown founded in part to pursue lawsuits challenging teacher tenure. As the New York Times reports:

“Mr. Boies, the son of two public schoolteachers, is a lifelong liberal who represented Al Gore in Bush v. Gore and prosecuted Microsoft in the Clinton Administration’s antitrust suit. In aligning himself with a cause that is bitterly opposed by teachers’ unions, he is emblematic of an increasingly fractured relationship between the Democrats and the teachers’ unions.

“Aimages-2s chairman of the new group, Mr. Boies, 73, will join Ms. Brown as the public face of a legal strategy in which the group organizes parents and students to bring lawsuits against states with strong tenure and seniority protections. In a suit filed in New York last month, plaintiffs supported by Ms. Brown’s group argued that tenure laws make it too difficult to fire ineffective teachers and force principals to make personnel decisions based on seniority rather than performance. The suit argues that such laws disproportionately harm low-income and minority students.A California judge recently ruled in a similar case that teacher tenure laws violate students’ civil rights under the state’s constitution. The group that brought that case, known as Vergara v. California, said it would be pursuing similar litigation elsewhere as well. In a sign of the legal firepower attracted to the cause, Theodore B. Olson, Mr. Boies’ partner in the California same-sex marriage case, has been advising the Vergara plaintiffs.In an interview in his firm’s offices in Manhattan, Mr. Boies said he viewed the cause of tenure overhaul as “pro-teacher.”

“I think teaching is one of the most important professions that we have in this country,” he said. But, he added, “there can be a tension” between union efforts to protect workers and “what society needs to do, which is to make sure that the social function — in this case teaching — is being fulfilled.” Mr. Boies, who said he viewed education as a civil rights issue, is offering his services pro bono.

This is not Mr. Boies’ first engagement with efforts to overhaul public education. He is on the board of StudentsFirstNY, the New York chapter of the advocacy group led by Michelle A. Rhee, the former schools chancellor in Washington, which also supports teacher evaluations based on test scores and the expansion of charter schools.

Teachers’ unions say the lawsuits against tenure demonize educators and ignore real problems. “The bigger issue is how do you attract and retain great teachers into schools and how do you address the many issues that are created by poverty?” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the country’s second largest teachers’ union, who called the lawsuits “smoke screens.”

Ms. Brown, who has been drawing fire from critics for refusing to disclose her group’s funders, said she did not need to “raise millions of dollars” to mount a legal campaign given that Mr. Boies and others are donating their services. Jay P. Lefkowitz, the lawyer who is handling the case in New York, is also working pro bono.

“When you can’t make a case for why seniority should be the sole factor in employment decisions,” Ms. Brown said, “you have no choice but to try to gin up other issues.”

Zakiyah Ansari, advocacy director of the Alliance for Quality Education, a parent group that receives about 15 percent of its funding from teachers’ unions, said she wanted teachers to have job protection. As a parent, she said, “I want a teacher to be able to feel comfortable knowing that they can step up and protect my child.”

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