Teaching Profession Opinion

Hailly Korman, Associate, Morrison & Foerster

By Sara Mead — May 20, 2011 7 min read
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Earlier this year, a California judge ruled that the Los Angeles’ school district’s practice of laying off teachers based on seniority--leading to massive layoffs in some of the districts’ highest-poverty schools, where novice teachers disproportionately work--violated the rights of students in these schools to equal educational opportunity.

Hailly Korman was one of the lawyers who worked on the case. Korman, 31, has long been driven by a passion for social justice and civil rights, which first led her to teach kindergarten in a high-poverty Los Angeles school, and eventually to law school at UCLA and the litigation practice at Morrison and Foerster. Raised in Hawai’i, Korman has lived in Los Angeles since graduating from Brandeis University in 2002 and has an abiding passion for disadvantaged students in Los Angeles, their families, and their communities. [Click here for more.]Can you tell me about some of the education-related work you do or have been doing?

I left the classroom in 2007 to go to law school but I’ve remained involved in education work. In 2008, I was an Education Pioneers Fellow and in 2010 I taught an undergraduate seminar at UCLA in education reform politics. Now that I’m at Morrison & Foerster, I’ve had the incredible opportunity to be a part of the team representing students in LAUSD who were denied access to equal educational opportunity when LAUSD’s reverse-seniority layoffs disproportionately impacted their schools. We joined attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and the Public Counsel Law Center to file Reed v. State of California. Our goal was to prevent teacher layoffs at these schools, arguing that a new round of cuts would deprive students of their right to equal educational opportunity. First, we secured a preliminary injunction prohibiting layoffs at those three schools and then, after a four-day evidentiary hearing, the trial court approved a settlement agreement between our clients and the school district to protect students at 45 at-risk schools from bearing the brunt of future layoffs while also adopting new retention incentives for both teachers and administrators. The local teachers’ union opposed the settlement agreement and is currently pursuing an appeal, but we have won early victories in the court of appeal to ensure that implementation of the settlement agreement will not be stayed and that the agreement will protect thousands of students’ educational opportunity in the coming year.

How did you come to work in education? What drew you to the field?

I originally went to college planning to major in neuroscience and artificial intelligence until I discovered that mostly means sitting in front of a computer and writing code all day. So I just started taking classes that interested me: a lot of history and political science with a big focus on civil rights and inequality. At the same time, I needed a work study job and the on-campus preschool sounded like a lot more fun that working in the library. It was there that I discovered a real love for the everyday work of education. I was surrounded by some of the greatest teachers I have ever seen and it inspired me. I ended up working full time and earning my teacher certification along with a minor in early education while I was in college. Since then, I’ve been working to find just the right balance of these two things that matter to me: civil rights and education.

Why did you decide to leave teaching and go to law school?

I have to start my answer to that question by admitting that this is so much easier than teaching. There are two sorts of reasons that I decided to go to law school and they’re both honest but maybe they’re not both true. The first type is the answer I like to give to other lawyers and it’s about having the power to change fundamental structures and to change the system from within so that it might actually work for kids and communities. The second type is the answer that I give to other teachers because they know better. They know that, however important the system is, day-to-day, there is nothing more valuable than the adult at the front of the room. I tell them the truth. Being a teacher is hard work, harder than anyone else can imagine. And being a good teacher is even harder than that. It is emotionally, spiritually, physically, and creatively exhausting. Add to that a dysfunctional bureaucracy with incompetence up and down the line, few to no useful resources, and minimal support to meet the needs of your students and yourself--the job becomes Herculean. For me, it wasn’t sustainable. I am excited about the opportunities that I now have to be a part of institutional change for kids but frankly, I left the classroom because teaching was too hard for me. So I guess I can say that I get both: I can try to help the teachers who do what I couldn’t and I get to enjoy my new role as well.

What do you see as the biggest challenges that the next generation of education reform leaders will need to tackle?

I think that the most complicated challenges that we will face are those that are born of reforming schools that are not our own. Many of us are not from the communities that we serve and we did not attend schools like those that we now work in. Speaking for myself, I do not look like the students that I represent. Those things matter and demand our humility and honesty about where we are ignorant and where we are failing. We’re in a place right now where it’s easy to take pride in the victories without being held accountable for the real losses. We’re still getting a lot wrong and it’s not hyperbolic to say that when we get this wrong, kids die. If a student leaves second grade not knowing how to read, the results are probably going to be catastrophic.

I have heard more than one school leader describe their efforts to get rid of “gang members” as a key piece of school reform. It would be hard to imagine a statement that disgusts me more. It’s as though they believe that those kids have lost their humanity, that they’ve made some major life choice, and that once they walk out the gate they cease to exist. Those kids don’t go get jobs or sign themselves up for community college. They end up sitting in the Los Angeles Men’s Central Jail. It breaks my heart to look out on them from my office window in Downtown LA and to think about the educational and legal machinery that is incarcerating a generation of young men. It’s such a setup. We don’t support their families when they’re infants, we don’t provide them high quality early education, we cram them into segregated classrooms with teachers who are afraid of them, we blame the very same parents whom we’ve alienated, we send them to middle school without teaching them how to read, and when they learn that it’s easier to get suspended from school than to ask for help in algebra, we expel them. Those kids are just as much our responsibility as the ones that are on their way to college. If we want to take credit for the great ones, then in the same breath we must acknowledge that the missteps of the others are our fault.

Who are some individuals (inside or outside of education) who you admire and whose examples influence your work?

Over the last six months, I have had the honor of working with some of the greatest education advocates and civil rights leaders in the law today and I can’t describe how humbling that is. It’s almost impossible to believe: I went to law school hoping that one day maybe I would get to follow their example and instead I find myself sitting at the same table.

I have so much admiration for my friends who are still in the classroom; the people who get up every day and stand in front of a room full of kids. If we want to talk about improving outcomes for kids, the most important piece is what will happen in those classrooms each day and the magic of that space.

Beyond that, I have endless respect for every father, grandmother, uncle, sister, or neighbor who works hard to make the best of what is too often an unforgiving world for children. We’re seeing mothers being arrested for sending their children to school--I don’t know the details of those cases but I think parents like that are modern civil rights heroes. Somehow we’ve turned ourselves upside down to come full circle; the schoolhouse doors have become today’s Woolworth’s lunch counter. Everything I do right now starts with the question of how I can make the work easier for them.

What do you do when you’re not working?

I try to get outdoors and out of Los Angeles as much as possible. I like just about anything that gets me outside, especially if I can do it in shorts. I travel as much as I can and most recently I went scuba diving in Galapagos.

I have two kids (“have” used very loosely); they’re my godsons and former students. We’re all trying to find the best way to help these boys to build successful lives and sometimes that means staying with me. They do all the things that I expected teenagers would do: wash dishes, take out the trash, total my car, and complain about my cooking. It’s a fun time.

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The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.