Michaud: Challenge to teacher tenure in NYS revs up

This is a first-grade classroom at Branch Brook This is a first-grade classroom at Branch Brook Elementary School in Smithtown at the end of the day Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2011. Photo Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

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Anne Michaud Portrait of Newsday editorial board member Anne Michaud

Anne Michaud is the interactive editor for Newsday Opinion. She has written about politics, government, education and transportation

The lineup sounds like the cast of a new "The Avengers" movie: a former CNN anchor, a former White House spokesman, and a legal team that won a landmark case in California installing a "parent trigger," which allows public school parents to take over their schools by majority vote.

This is the team that's assembling to challenge teacher tenure in New York courts by the end of the summer. The effort follows the Vergara vs. California ruling that voided tenure on the grounds that school children have a constitutional right to an equal opportunity to succeed in school. A California judge ruled that poor and minority students were more likely to end up with ineffective teachers.

Because New York State law is different, the group's legal argument here will probably rest on students' right to a "sound basic education" -- a standard established in 2001 by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit. Campbell Brown, the former CNN journalist-turned-parent activist, says New Yorkers are on their way. Her group has six families who will act as plaintiffs. So far, no Long Islanders have joined the suit.

"People who lead the charge have to be pretty courageous to put their names and faces out there," she said. "They're challenging a powerful bureaucracy and special interests -- some of the most powerful unions in the state."

You can say that again. Brown and her allies are pursuing the legal route after failing to find support in the State Legislature for a bill that would have made it easier to fire teachers and administrators for sexual misconduct. Working with the Daily News, Brown found 128 New York City school staff members who had engaged in sexual misconduct or inappropriate relationships with students since 2007; just 33 were fired.

The disciplinary system in NYC schools is obviously broken. Attacking tenure to get rid of a few -- even a few dozen -- predators in the classroom may seem like an overreach. But the teachers unions' steadfast stonewalling of dismissals for even the most egregious outrages has invited this broadside.

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One plaintiff is a father of twins who says his children started kindergarten in NYC schools, with vastly different results. One daughter's teacher engaged the students and gave them homework, he claims. The other daughter's teacher lazily had students fill in worksheets during class. The father witnessed the twins' reading levels diverge during the school year, and his efforts to intervene led only to frustration.

Brown's group, the Partnership for Educational Justice, has recruited attorney Jay Lefkowitz of Kirkland & Ellis, which will pursue the case pro bono. Brown also hired the Incite Agency, a public relations firm founded by former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs. Surely, calling on a Democratic firm is a maneuver to protect the group from the charge that these are right-wingers intent on destroying public-sector unions.

The media love to point out that Brown is married to Dan Senor, a former policy adviser to Mitt Romney who serves on the board of StudentsFirstNY, a pro-charter schools lobbying group founded by lightning-rod Michelle Rhee, the former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor. And the Brown-Senor children attend private school.

Even now, Brown has refused to say specifically who's funding the anti-tenure effort. Trust that there will be some among them whose motives raise suspicions. But it's impossible to argue with her basic premise: "Everything should be driven by one fundamental question: Is this good for kids? Why are all the laws written to protect the adults?"

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