Obama alums join anti teachers union case
And more. Much much more.
They brag: We've defined and protected
the Obama brand and managed
communications for one of the most
complex c-suites in the world--during historic opposition. . . .
By Stephanie Simon
Teachers unions are girding for a tough fight to defend tenure laws against a coming blitz of lawsuits -- and an all-out public relations campaign led by former aides to President Barack Obama.
The Incite Agency, founded by former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs and former Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt, will lead a national public relations drive to support a series of lawsuits aimed at challenging tenure, seniority and other job protections that teachers unions have defended ferociously. LaBolt and another former Obama aide, Jon Jones -- the first digital strategist of the 2008 campaign -- will take the lead in the public relations initiative.
The involvement of such high-profile Obama alumni highlights the sharp schism within the Democratic Party over education reform.
Teachers unions have long counted on Democrats as their most loyal allies. But in the past decade, more and more big-name Democrats have split with the unions to support charter schools, tenure reform and accountability measures that hold teachers responsible for raising studentsĂ˘€™ scores on standardized tests.
The national legal campaign is being organized by Campbell Brown, a former CNN anchor who told POLITICO that she has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in recent months to get the effort off the ground. She intends to start with a lawsuit in New York, to be filed within the next few weeks, and follow up with similar cases around the country. Her plans for the New York lawsuit were first reported by The Wall Street Journal.
Brown's campaign will be modeled on the recent Vergara v. California decision, which dealt a major blow to teachers unions. In that case, a state judge earlier this month struck down CaliforniaĂ˘€™s tenure system and other job protections embedded in state law, ruling that they deprived students of their constitutional right to a quality education because they shielded even the most incompetent teachers from dismissal. Teachers unions have said they will appeal.
The Vergara trial cost the plaintiffs' team several million dollars, most of that bankrolled by Silicon Valley entrepreneur Dave Welch.
Brown said her campaign will be far less costly because sheĂ˘€™ll be relying on free legal representation. The New York case will be handled by attorney Jay Lefkowitz, a former deputy assistant for domestic policy to President George W. Bush. He will take it pro bono.
Obama has bucked the teachers unions on many occasions, though they poured resources into electing him in 2008 and again in 2012. His education secretary, Arne Duncan, hailed the Vergara ruling, writing in a blog post that "it took enormous courage for tenth-grader Beatriz Vergara and her eight co-plaintiffs to stand up and demand change to a broken status quo."
Duncan's positions have so angered some teachers that the Badass Teachers Association, a more militant offshoot of the two major teachers unions, recently publicized a vote of no-confidence in the secretary.
But LaBolt said he joined Duncan and other Democrats in embracing the idea that "the best way we can ensure that every child has access to a quality education is to provide strong teachers in every classroom." He praised the "courageous parents" who have agreed to become plaintiffs in the New York lawsuit.
While LaBolt wouldn't tip his hand about his strategy, Brown said the public relations campaign will most likely be modeled closely after the Vergara lawsuit.
The communications team there painted teachers unions as selfish and obstructionist forces, more intent on protecting their members than serving needy students. The team also highlighted poignant stories from students who said they badly wanted to learn but were stuck with incompetent teachers who couldnĂ˘€™t even maintain basic discipline in the classroom, much less challenge them academically.
"The PR piece of this is essential because for the first time, we're having a dialogue in this country about anachronistic laws and how we revamp our public education system for the modern world so it serves children first and foremost," Brown said. "Having that conversation is as important to me as the litigation itself."
Brown said she sees a parallel to the fight for gay marriage, noting that the legal fight around California's Proposition 8 sparked a public conversation that she credits with changing attitudes and increasing acceptance of same-sex unions. "It entirely changed the dialogue," she said.
Though the unions decisively lost the Vergara case in California, Carl Korn, a spokesman for New York State United Teachers, said he believes they will have more success defending job protections in New York.
California law allows teachers to get tenure after less than 18 months in the classroom. In New York state, they must teach for three years before they're considered for tenure. New York also has a stringent new evaluation system in place -- which the teachers union has fought vigorously -- that lets districts move quickly to fire teachers who are rated ineffective for two consecutive years. Just 1 percent of teachers were rated ineffective this past year.
The New York trial will also take on seniority laws that protect veteran teachers and put rookies first in line for layoffs, regardless of job performance. Korn said seniority is "the fairest, most objective way of laying off teachers" and noted that other public-sector unions, such as those representing firefighters and police, often use similar systems.
Korn blasted the Partnership for Educational Justice, which will be organizing the legal campaign, as an "astroturf" group funded by right-wing Ă˘€śextremists.Ă˘€ť He noted that Brown's husband, Dan Senor, a former policy adviser to Mitt Romney, sits on the board of StudentsFirst, an education reform group that has long pushed to weaken or abolish tenure -- and that has attracted donations from extremely wealthy individuals.
"Campbell Brown ought to disclose her donors who are funding this attack on working people and the rights of teachers," Korn said. "We will vigorously defend due process and seniority rights against these attacks by billionaire hedge fund managers."
Brown declined to name her donors, saying only that they come from both parties.
Lefkowitz, the attorney who will be leading the New York case, has successfully litigated other cases that pitted him against teachers unions.
He won a case before the U.S. Supreme Court defending WisconsinĂ˘€™s voucher program, which gives eligible parents public funds to pay tuition at private and religious schools. He also successfully defended the for-profit public school management company K12 Inc. against a lawsuit brought by the Chicago Teachers Union. And he worked pro bono to help enact a Ă˘€śparent triggerĂ˘€ť law in California, which allows parents to seize control of a failing public school and bring in new management or staff.
Lefkowitz is a senior litigation partner at Kirkland & Ellis in New York
Read more: http://www.politico.com/story/2014/06/robert-gibbs-ben-labolt-legal-fight-teachers-union-incite-agency-108243.html#ixzz35exRF4BZ
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