A big national fight over teacher tenure is coming to New York state. And soon. Jay Lefkowitz, the head lawyer for the Chicago-based law firm Kirkland & Ellis, LLP (gross revenues of $1.94 billion in 2012), has told The Wall Street Journal that he plans to file an anti-tenure suit in New York state in early July. The suit will be filed in state Supreme Court in Albany.
One thing that should be understood by all people is that this case it isn’t just about a handful of parents who, out of pure concern for their dear children, are trying to undermine a basic pillar of public education. It is really about a small group of people in New York City organized as Partnership for Educational Justice that has hired a big outside law firm to do ideological battle against public unions.
It is true enough that we are experiencing a crisis of achievement among a sizeable minority of young people in the U.S., but to place the blame entirely on public schools and teachers is too simplistic. Blame goes around.
One California Superior Court judge in June started the campaign against teacher tenure by ruling that tenure imposes “a real and appreciable impact on students’ fundamental right to equality of education.”
This judge clearly neglected to consider the broader effect on the quality of classroom education when all the many good public school teachers must fear being attacked in their professional roles for insisting on high academic and behavioral standards in their classrooms.
The reality is that tenure protects far more excellent teachers than it does the far fewer incompetent ones. It is often the good teachers with the highest behavior and highest academic expectations that are most threatened by arbitrary and unfair complaints.
The sad reality is that in order to model excellence in most American public schools, a good teacher must often dare to challenge students on the academic and social levels. This is professionally risky every single day in a public school.
It is the best teachers who need tenure protection in order to remain at the top of their game in their classrooms. It is already too easy for some students to justify lack of effort by blaming individual teachers. Because teachers in most schools can no longer count on their harried, public relations-style administrators to back them against unreasonable complaints, the protection of tenure has become all the more important.
I am writing here from the perspective of someone who has spent 31 years on the front lines of classroom teaching: I simply cannot imagine teaching in an American public school classroom without the protections afforded by tenure. Every single really good teacher I know with high classroom expectations could have been dismissed any number of times in a long career over any number of absurd school situations that snowballed out of control. Issues over which teachers can be hazed by resentful parents and inconvenienced administrators are virtually limitless.
Teachers are uniquely vulnerable in a public school setting. And it wasn’t even the union movement that recognized this fact. Teacher unions in New York state did not negotiate tenure laws. Tenure law was established in state Education Law decades before teachers' unions were even recognized in New York.
Now what about that law firm filing the anti-tenure suit in New York? I didn’t succeed in finding out whether the Partnership for Educational Justice is just an ideological front group. But what I did find out is this: that the major clients of Kirkland & Ellis, LLC have included Brown & Williamson (tobacco), Motorola, Honeywell, Apple, Intel, Raytheon, Samsung, Schering-Plough and Siemens. The firm also is currently representing BP in the Deepwater Horizon litigations. Among the firm's top lawyers have been Robert H. Bork, Kenneth Starr (of anti-Clinton notoriety) and the aforementioned Lefkowitz, a former domestic policy adviser to George W. Bush who, according to the Wall Street Journal, will be the head attorney leading the state anti-tenure case.
I invite you to reach your own conclusion. As for me, I recognize teacher tenure to be a necessary safeguard in the public schools, one that is important in the continuing struggle for quality public education. But then, I also argue that nurses in hospitals, and especially editors at media outlets, should enjoy far greater employment protection. Some other professions, too. But not hedge-fund operatives and corporate law firm lawyers.
I guess I generally don’t trust the new corporate overlords.
L.D. Davidson lives in Amsterdam and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.