Time Magazine‘s November 3, 2014 cover that scapegoats teachers by implying that the profession protects a whole lot of “bad apples” has brought the California Vergara court decision back into the news and once again brought us Campbell Brown, whose face is familiar as a former CNN news anchor. Her new mission is represented by her new organization, the Partnership for Educational Justice, that has begun bringing Vergara-like lawsuits across the states to oppose due process for teachers. Yesterday in a post, It’s Not OK to Hate Teachers, this blog explored how wrong it is that Time (on its magazine cover) is attacking a whole profession of people in this country—about 5 million school teachers. Today we’ll review what has become a far-right attack on public school teachers, and why outlawing due process for teachers is probably not a very good idea—not only from the point of view of the teachers but also from the perspective of the students in their classes.
The review must begin with Michelle Rhee, however, because she launched the attack on teachers long before Campbell Brown left her position at CNN. Michelle Rhee made her mark as the Washington, D.C. schools chancellor who, according to Rhee herself, set out to put the interests of “students first” over the interests of the adults who worked for the D.C. schools. Rhee portrayed teachers—through their union—as protecting their own “adult” interests above the needs of the children. The adult interests Rhee was talking about were things like their salaries, their health insurance, and their job protection. Rhee surely didn’t believe in job protection; she became famous for firing lots of teachers and school administrators. She fired one principal publicly during a video being filmed by John Merrow for the PBS News Hour. It was later shown that any test score gains during Rhee’s tenure were the result of gentrification, that the racial achievement gap widened during Rhee’s years, and that she left the District under the cloud of allegations of a massive test score cheating scandal that was never fully investigated. She went on to found StudentsFirst, a national PAC that has attacked teachers unions, supported corporate school reformers for positions on local school boards and state legislatures, and supported vouchers. Just months ago, however, StudentsFirst closed state affiliates in Minnesota, Florida, Maine, Indiana and Iowa. Michelle Rhee has resigned as its executive director, while she has remained on its board. She has also joined the board of Scotts Miracle–Gro.
As Rhee’s star has been falling as the leader of the attack on school teachers, Campbell Brown has stepped in to lead a series of lawsuits to destroy due process protection for teachers. According to the NY Times, Campbell Brown is married to Dan Senor, who was a foreign affairs advisor to presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Senor has also served on the board of Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst. In June we learned from Stephanie Simon at Politico that Brown and her campaign, the Partnership for Educational Justice, had joined with a politically connected Washington, D.C. public relations firm, the Incite Agency, where Robert Gibbs, President Obama’s former press secretary, and former Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt have been hired to create a national public relations drive to promote Campbell Brown’s lawsuits. You will note that Brown has been working to make her organization bi-partisan. She has made David Boies a member of her board. He is the high profile attorney who represented Al Gore back in 2000 at the U.S. Supreme Court when the presidential election was in question, and he represented gay couples seeking to protect their right to marry when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned California Proposition 8.
The other primary character in the attack on tenure is David Welch, who launched the original Vergara case in California. He is a Silicon Valley telecommunications entrepreneur whose not-for-profit organization, Students Matter and its chosen student plaintiffs alleged that tenure protects bad teachers, and that tenure, therefore, violates the civil rights of students living in poor school districts. Welch and Students Matter hired as plaintiff attorneys former U.S. Solicitor General Ted Olson and Theodore Boutrous, Jr., a corporate attorney who represents Walmart and who represented George W. Bush against Al Gore in 2000, when the Florida recount reached the U.S. Supreme Court. Peter Schrag, retired editorial page editor for the Sacramento Bee, has noted that in Vergara, “Welch is seconded by groups such as Ben Austin’s Parent Revolution and Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst, with funding help from Eli Broad and the Walton Family Foundation, all of which have battled teachers unions and supported charter schools and ‘transformational’ change in public education.” In June, Judge Rolf True found for the plaintiffs. The case is being appealed, and many have questioned whether a firm case can be made that tenure is a civil rights matter.
Last Thursday, in a fine article published by the New York Daily News, Erwin Chemerinsky, the dean and Raymond Pryke Professor of First Amendment Law at the University of California, Irvine School of Law analyzed the contentions made by attorneys for the plaintiffs in Vergara. Chemerinsky writes: “American public education desperately needs to be improved, especially for the most disadvantaged children. But eliminating teachers’ job security and due-process rights is not going to attract better educators—or do much to improve school quality… The reality is that job security and protection against arbitrary treatment are terms and conditions of employment that, like higher wages, attract good people into teaching and keep them in the classroom… It should be noted that teachers in the United States work more hours and are paid less than their counterparts in almost every other developed country—and their salaries have fallen dramatically relative to pay for comparable jobs in our economy since 1940.”
Chemerinsky continues, “The causal relationship alleged by the plaintiffs in these lawsuits—that teachers’ rights cause minority students to receive substandard educations—is belied by readily available empirical evidence. If the plaintiffs were correct, similarly situated students in states with weak protection of teachers—such as Texas, Alabama and Mississippi—would have higher levels of achievement and the racial achievement gap would be smaller in those states. But…. every year, the states with the highest student performance are those with robust protections for teachers—places like Maryland and Massachusetts.”
He concludes: “The plaintiffs who are bringing these lawsuits have misappropriated the soaring rhetoric and fundamental principles of the civil rights movement… Cloaking the attack on teachers’ rights in the rhetoric of the civil rights movement is misleading. Lessening the legal protections for teachers will not advance civil rights or improve education.” “The problem of inner-city schools is not that the dedicated teachers who work in them have too many rights, but that the students who go to them are disadvantaged in many ways, the schools have inadequate resources and the schools are surrounded by communities that are dangerous, lack essential services and are largely segregated by both race and class. Taking the modest job security accorded by tenure away from teachers will address none of these problems.”