The debate over New York’s teacher tenure laws moved from the steps of City Hall to the studios of The Colbert Report on Thursday night. Campbell Brown appeared on Colbert’s show to discuss the recent lawsuit she’s spearheading that challenges those job protections for teachers.
Brown leads the Partnership for Educational Justice, a newly created organization that helped file the case, Wright vs. New York, in Albany. The suit charges that the job protections leave ineffective teachers in the classroom, and specifically challenges the “last in, first out” policy in which districts lay off teachers based on seniority, the too-short amount of time, plaintiffs feel, that administrators have to decide whether a teacher is effective enough to get tenure, and disciplinary statutes that make firing ineffective teachers a lengthy process.
Her appearance was a bit tense as Colbert pushed Brown on a few contentious issues, including her anti-teachers union stance and her funding sources.
Since a minutes-long interview can’t capture much nuance, here’s what you need to know:
1. The equal access argument
When Colbert asked whether the lawsuit is focused on ensuring equal access to education, Brown said yes. “That’s exactly right,” she said, mentioning the California decision that found teacher tenure unconstitutional earlier this summer.
However, while the California case argued that teacher tenure violated the state’s guarantee of equal educational opportunities, the two New York lawsuits do not. Instead, they claim that the job protections violate the state constitution’s guarantee of a “sound basic education.”
Many people have been speculating on the likelihood of a New York case succeeding, so differences between the two states’ cases are worth noting.
The Wright case argues that it takes too much time and costs too much money to get rid of incompetent teachers and that, as a result, principals and districts often avoid that process.
“It takes, on average, 830 days to fire a teacher who has been found incompetent,” Brown said on the show.
However, that’s not the clearest information. According to the NYS School Boards Association, which is whom Brown and the lawsuit cite, it actually took 830 days for an incompetency hearing to reach a decision – not to end in a firing. It took an average of 520 days for all proceedings to reach a decision, including misconduct cases. Those figures come from 2004-2008 and they exclude New York City cases.
More updated data from the State Education Department show it’s been taking less time to resolve disciplinary cases recently. For fiscal year 2013, it took 177 days, on average, to reach a decision statewide, and 190 days in New York City.
3. Follow the money
Parents and teachers organized by the Alliance for Quality Education, an advocacy group that receives funding from the state’s teachers union, showed up outside Colbert’s midtown studio to protest Brown’s appearance. The American Federation of Teachers created a Twitter hashtag, #questions4campbell, which started to pick up speed before the show and succeeded in lobbing a question into Colbert’s interview notes.
“Your organization, where’s its money come from?” Colbert said. “That’s one of the things they asked me to ask you.”
Brown initially skirted the question by saying the law firm Kirkland & Ellis is taking the case pro bono.
“So the Partnership for Educational Justice has not raised any money so far?” Colbert asked.
“Yeah, we are raising money,” Brown said.
“And who’d you raise it from?”
“I’m not going to reveal who the donors are because the people who are out–.”
“I respect that because I’ve had a super PAC,” Colbert joked.
“But part of the reason is, the people who are outside today, trying to protest, trying to silence our parents who want to have a voice in this debate–.”
“Exercising their First Amendment rights,” Colbert said.
“Absolutely. But they’re also going to go after people who are funding this,” Brown said. “And I think this is a good cause and an important cause and if someone wants to contribute to this cause without having to put their name on it so they become a target of the people who are outside earlier today, then I respect that.”
“Well, I respect… you,” Colbert said.