Legal efforts to force a change to New York’s teacher tenure laws are becoming bogged down by infighting among activists.
In early June, the Vergara v. California ruling sent shockwaves across the country when a state judge ruled that California’s generous teacher tenure and retention laws made it too difficult to fire bad teachers and violated the state constitution’s guarantee of equal access to quality education. Almost immediately, activists began working to exploit the Vergara decision by suing in other states that have similar tenure protections.
The first suit in New York, Davids v. New York, was launched by the New York City Parents Union (NYCPU) in early July. Shortly afterwards, the national group Partnership for Education Justice (PEJ), led by former CNN anchor Campbell Brown, launched its own lawsuit, Wright v. State of New York.
Since the two lawsuits have almost identical goals, a hearing was scheduled on Thursday in which a state Supreme Court justice decided to consolidate the two cases into one, a decision that will compel the two groups to cooperate with one another and share representation. The hearing, however, has revealed bad blood between them.
While speaking to the press prior to the hearing, NYCPU leaders accused the PEJ of leading an elitist effort attempting to hijack local school reform from parents. They expressed particular hostility towards Brown, and even passed out fake hundred-dollar bills with Brown’s face emblazoned on them. The former anchor, they said, is trying to boost her own career by exploiting the plight of children in failing schools.
“We will not stand by and let Campbell Brown reform her image and career on the backs of poor, black and Hispanic children and families,” said Mona Davids, NYCPU president and lawsuit’s namesake, according to the Staten Island Advance.
The spat exposes fault lines between local activists fighting to improve their children’s schools and national organizations that view individual cases as the building blocks of nationwide change. Sam Pirozzolo, the NYCPU’s vice president, explicitly objected to the idea that a national group’s intervention was wanted or needed in New York.
“We object to ‘outsiders’ like Campbell Brown coming into New York City and saying we parents don’t know how to speak for ourselves and for our children,” he said.
The infighting may already be having a substantive effect on the lawsuits themselves. Gibson Dunn, the California law firm that spearheaded the Vergara decision, had signed on to help the Davids case in early August, only to quietly drop out several weeks later. Davids accused Brown of using “bullying” tactics to pressure Gibson to back out, though she did not supply any direct evidence of this.
Brown has quickly denied all allegations of interference, and said she would have been happy to have Gibson involved in the lawsuits. Meanwhile, Keoni Wright, a plaintiff in Brown’s case, released a statement of her own calling the accusations against Brown “disgusting and ludicrous.”
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