After a string of legal defeats, an education reform group that’s been fighting state laws on teacher tenure has lost its only dedicated staff member.
The Partnership for Educational Justice, a nonprofit founded by school reform activist Campbell Brown, has backed lawsuits against teacher-tenure laws in Minnesota, New York, and New Jersey. The lawsuits in Minnesota and New Jersey have been dismissed, but the New York lawsuit is continuing on toward trial.
But now, the operations of the last remaining lawsuit will be handled by the 50 State Campaign for Achievement Now, or 50CAN, an advocacy network that fights for policies such as teacher-evaluation reform, equitable funding for students, and school choice through local campaigns. In an email, Alissa Boshnack Bernstein confirmed that she had recently stepped down from her position as executive director of the Partnership for Educational Justice.
"[W]e determined that the most impactful use of the organization’s resources was to focus them to directly support the discovery/trial needs of the Wright v. N.Y. teacher quality lawsuit, which recently entered a new phase—the discovery phase—instead of pursuing other activities or new projects at this time,” she said.
In 2017, PEJ became an affiliate of 50CAN. (Brown, the former CNN anchor and a friend of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, is now the head of news partnerships at Facebook, after founding education news site The 74 Million. She has been outspoken in her opposition against teachers’ unions and remains on 50CAN’s board of directors.)
Now, Marc Porter Magee, the CEO and founder of 50CAN, said because the New York lawsuit is headed toward trial, it made sense to focus the organization’s resources on court costs beyond the pro bono legal counsel already in place. While the case is still under PEJ’s name, it will be staffed by 50CAN’s national team, he said.
“We think this case has the opportunity to be transformative, and that’s our primary focus—to make sure we have every opportunity for this case to fulfill its potential to help kids,” Magee said.
Still, he said the Partnership for Educational Justice will remain its own brand within 50CAN. In 2016, 50CAN merged with the controversial nonprofit StudentsFirst, which was launched by former D.C. Chancellor Michelle Rhee.
Magee wouldn’t rule out future litigation work through PEJ, and said that depending on the opportunities, PEJ might “scale back up” with its own dedicated staff again.
“The basic model of PEJ is a focus on educational justice in the courts that pairs top law firms providing pro bono legal services with a nonprofit staff helping do the leg work,” Magee said. “That model is a really powerful one, and we intend to keep investing in it, within the PEJ brand.”
PEJ’s website was down late last week, but a 50CAN spokesman said that was because of a glitch that occurred when upgrading the site. After Education Week inquired about it on Monday, the website was back up.
A Rocky Litigation Road
PEJ has argued against tenure protections that “are so extreme that they amount to ironclad jobs for life, irrespective of demonstrated effectiveness in the classroom,” according to its website. These protections can deprive students of an adequate education, the lawsuits have alleged.
But teacher-tenure rules have been difficult to fight in court. In Minnesota, the state Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal of PEJ’s lawsuit. Last month, the nonprofit announced that the group of parents in Minnesota had decided not to appeal to the state supreme court, bringing the case to an end. And late last year, the New Jersey Supreme Court declined to review an appeals court ruling that dismissed PEJ’s lawsuit challenging the state’s “last in, first out” policy that protected teachers with seniority from losing their jobs.
A similar, high-profile case challenging teacher-tenure rules in California, Vergara v. California, was denied a hearing in the state’s Supreme Court in 2016, which effectively ended the lawsuit.
On the other hand, Colorado’s Supreme Court ruled last year that state law does not provide for “tenure” or “permanent teachers.” And an appellate court ruled last year that PEJ’s last remaining lawsuit in New York could move to trial, despite the union’s attempts to dismiss it. (PEJ’s lawsuit, Wright v. N.Y., was merged with a similar case brought by parent activist Mona Davids.)
Magee said he’s optimistic about the New York lawsuit, which argues that teacher job protections amount to permanent employment, even for bad teachers.
“In the next year, this could be an important focal point,” he said. “We’re hoping that if things proceed as we hope they will, this is going to be an important next step forward.”
What Does This Mean for School Reform?
Magee pushed back against the idea that this consolidation has any broader implications for the education advocacy movement, which seeks to improve student outcomes by fighting against policies and regulations like teacher tenure.
“This is really about this specific case, and the phase it’s going into,” he said. “Our approach to this work has always been to be really focused on making sure that every dollar we’re raising is being spent in a way that’s going to get the highest return for kids.”
Still, in recent years, the public narrative has shifted away from weeding out the bad teachers, and toward supporting all educators. The downsizing of the Partnership for Educational Justice could reflect that shift in national rhetoric, which has been heightened by the wave of teacher activism and strikes.
“It demonstrates that the public has lost any desire for public attacks on teachers—that’s not an effective rhetorical strategy anymore,” said Jack Schneider, an assistant professor of education at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. “Campbell Brown’s group seized the zeitgeist when it set up shop, but the story that they were telling about teachers and their unions—that teachers are primarily self-interested and they used the collective-bargaining process in a way that harms children—that narrative really no longer fits with the changed political context.”
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.