NEW YORK CITY — Campbell Brown cultivated sheer doggedness during years of rough-and-tumble national television interviews with presidents and members of Congress. Now she’s applying her skills to a different playing field: education reform.

Enduring zingers by critics ranging from education policy expert Diane Ravitch to funnyman Stephen Colbert, Brown and supporters of her non-profit, Partnership for Educational Justice, are leading the charge to prevent byzantine, ironclad teacher tenure laws from removing inept teachers.

Campbell_Brown3Campbell Brown is leading the charge to bring real reform to New York’s outdated education laws
Encouraged by this year’s Vergara v. California ruling that teacher tenure violated the state constitution, Brown worked with parents to file a similar lawsuit against the state of New York, hoping the court would force the legislature to implement tenure policies that better protect students from ineffective, even dangerous, teachers.

During an interview with Opportunity Lives, Brown said demonizing teachers isn’t the answer, yet the poorest-performing teachers are often in the worst-performing schools with the most underprivileged pupils. This quantitatively-proven fact leads a logical observer to question why an ineffective teacher should be instructing our most vulnerable students.

“We’re way past the point where incremental change will make a difference. This is a crisis,” Brown told OL. “What I learned in journalism was how to tell other people’s stories, so I felt this was probably the best way that I could try to help: take families who were experiencing problems and try to amplify their voices.”

Brown pointed to Public School 101Q in Forest Hills, Queens, where teacher Richard Parlini was allowed to return to the classroom despite his two-time suspension last school year for alleged physical and verbal abuse of his students.

“It’s so crazy that this is allowed. It blows my mind that we even have to have this argument,” Brown said. “What parent should be asked to tolerate that system?”

One counterargument from critics against tenure reform is that it could impinge on teachers’ right to due process and leave them exposed to arbitrary firings, nepotism or vindictive principals. However, as the New York Daily News editorialized, in practice, “The current system requires that ‘penalties’ be allocated to teachers with gradually increasing severity over many years, shifting the law’s emphasis from its original purpose of providing fair due process to the overriding goal of teacher rehabilitation, which now dominates proceedings.”

“This isn’t about partisan politics, it’s about what’s right and wrong. This is a moral question that we’re dealing with.”

Partnership for Educational Justice cites data showing that it can take up to 18 months and cost taxpayers $250,000 to replace a single poorly-performing teacher. In New York City, just 12 teachers out of 75,000 were formally replaced because of poor performance between 1997 and 2007.

Brown said despite testimony from multiple families, the teacher Parlini was allowed to undergo counseling instead of removal, a risky decision. She said personnel disputes are typically handled by outside arbitrators (not an educator or school chancellor) who are often retired judges that are hand-picked by teachers’ unions.

“They end up giving lenient sentences to appease the unions,” said Brown, who acknowledged the difficulty of attracting quality teachers to low-performing schools. She said one reason is because schools face obstacles in using private money to create incentives or bonuses to attract talent. This leads to the problem of fewer qualified teachers willing to serve in high-need areas. However, Brown says, this stumbling block should not delay removal of incompetent teachers.

“How is that creating a vacuum? If they’ve got a terrible teacher they’re going to have to be replaced with someone,” Brown said. “Changing these laws is not a silver bullet. It’s trying to fix one small part of the problem.”

Brown’s legal effort is a bi-partisan affair: the lead attorney on the New York lawsuit and chairman of the Partnership for Educational Justice is David Boies, who represented Al Gore in Bush v. Gore and prosecuted Microsoft in the Clinton Administration’s antitrust suit. A co-attorney on the suit is Republican attorney Jay Lefkowitz of the Kirkland & Ellis law firm, and Joe Williams, Executive Director of Democrats for Education Reform, serves on the board of the Partnership.

“This isn’t about partisan politics, it’s about what’s right and wrong. This is a moral question that we’re dealing with,” said Brown, who addressed the possibility of teacher tenure coming before the Supreme Court. For now, this seems unlikely based on her team’s current understanding of education law–analysis showing that a state-based approach would be most effective at tenure policy reform by showing state personnel rules violate a child’s civil rights.

“It’s not a federal issue,” she said, though this could change depending on how far the Vergara ruling goes; it’s currently on appeal.

Brown, who has no formal background in education policy, said she was attracted to the issue after she became a mother. After spending her career on the sidelines as an objective reporter and anchor, she retired from CNN and subsequently jumped into the fray. Now, she’s the subject of news, rather than merely an observer.

“I had been extremely fortunate. I was in a position to give my children extraordinary educational opportunities,” she said. “Mothers all over who care as much as I care have very limited options when it comes to trying to make sure their child can achieve everything they want in life. It’s not only good for children, it’s good for our country.”

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EDUCATION EMERGING LEADERS Micro-Scholarships Are Helping Send Low-Income Students To College
For incoming high school freshmen, the idea of life after high school can seem a distant haze. College selection committees are mysterious cabals, vocational training a remote abstraction. Yet, founders of a new tech startup called hope to simplify the transition to adulthood by rewarding teenage academic achievement and community involvement. They’ve created a system that helps teens see these behaviors are down payments on the future.

The platform connects students with what developers call “micro-scholarships,” by colleges that give, for example, $1,000 for earning an “A” in a class or $250 for volunteering at a local charity. These real-time awards given by colleges accumulate through all four years of high school. And while they don’t guarantee admission, if a student is accepted to that school, he or she could have piled up to $80,000 toward college. VP Shagran Hassan
A group of Millennials – some recent college graduates themselves – including former teachers, launched after speaking with high school students who felt intimidated by the college application process, said Shagran Hassan, a company vice president. Hassan said this was encapsulated by a conversation’s founder and CEO Preston Silverman had with a high school student.

“He was a smart kid, and he just seemed demotivated at some point,” Hassan said. “He said ‘You know what, I know that I’m not going to be able to afford college. I almost feel like it’s painful to be working this hard and know that it won’t happen.’”

Rolled out last school year at 25 pilot high schools across the country – in states ranging from New York to Texas, California, Massachusetts and Illinois – particularly focuses on low-income, high-risk populations. More than 50 colleges have joined the platform, with many more at different stages of the commitment process. The platform could also expand to include vocational and technical schools to diversify the pathways out of high school.

Creators hope to eventually offer the platform to any public, private, charter, or homeschooled student, with some granters perhaps choosing to favor high schools from certain regions or students on free or reduced priced lunches. The site runs on an honor system: if a school determines that a student has falsified information on his or her profile, then all scholarship money will be rescinded.

Counter to popular perception among some seeking to drive a wedge in the national conversation on income inequality, kids from the lowest-income families pay virtually nothing to attend public colleges and a fraction of what wealthier families pay for private colleges, according to data from the College Board.



Source: College Board Public and Private/For-Profit

Data from The Brookings Institution also shows that the vast majority of low-income, high-performing kids (those in the top 10 percent of ACT/SAT scorers with an A- G.P.A.) do not apply to any selective college. Hassan points out that the process of receiving financial aid and scholarships is too often a “black box” that seems sealed until the final year of school, and the most vulnerable students can get discouraged navigating a labyrinth of applications for financial aid and admissions.

Hassan said the platform introduces students to a national selection of schools when perhaps they had only considered local options. This gives them a wider pool to apply toward, which increases their likelihood of acceptance. It also familiarizes them with what colleges value by explaining how they weigh various admission factors through the quantitative expression of dollar amounts.

“It is true that students aren’t guaranteed admissions,” he continued in his interview with Opportunity Lives. “I think the key thing for them to remember is that doing these things are going to help improve their admissions likelihood at any college in the United States… It can be really good roadmaps for them that help them see how they can maximize their chances of getting into college.”

Hassan points to research showing the promise of performance-based scholarships as incentives for high school students that was co-written by a senior economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago and the Dean of the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton.

“It’s extremely exciting and empowering that when you get your report card you’re getting tens of thousands of dollars,” Hassan said, pointing to a pilot school in Houston that is part of the Knowledge is Power Program charter network. “Kids were shouting out the scholarship amounts they got. Kids were getting genuinely pretty excited by that.”

Funded in part by the University of Pennsylvania, also won the top prize of “Students’ Choice” award last year at the 2013 College Knowledge Challenge organized by Facebook, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and College Summit. That meant it was the most popular proposal among actual high school students who tested 20 other competitor websites designed to help students prepare for college.

“You kind of know that you’re always trying to strike a balance with your kids,” Hassan said. “There’s an instant gratification element and at the same time trying to build longer- term thinking.”