In early June, a decision in the California court case Vergara v. California deemed the state’s teacher tenure laws to be unconstitutional because they deny children access to a quality education. The decision has sparked similar cases around the country. In New York, the parents group New York City Parents Union (NYCPU), headed by Mona Davids, filed the first of these lawsuits in early July. In Davids v. State of New York, et al., eleven students, all children of members of the New York City Parents Union, are plaintiffs. The complaint (pdf) asks the court to issue permanent injunctions against the New York statutes involving “Last In, First Out” (LIFO) layoff rules and dismissal rules for teachers found to be ineffective. Unlike Vergara, Davids does not go after tenure rules which protect teachers who have worked for a pre-specified period of time from being fired for non-educational reasons.
Mona Davids has been, and still is, involved in a variety of lawsuits challenging the funding of schools and the release of student and parent data to a private corporation among other issues and she has fought against lack of parental oversight in charter schools in New York. I spoke to Davids and NYCPU Vice-President Sam Pirozzolo at length this past week to prepare this piece.
According to Davids and Pirozzolo, the week before the lawsuit was filed, NYCPU was contacted by Campbell Brown, the former CNN anchor. Brown has left her journalism career to become a staunch and well-funded advocate of education reform. With Michelle Rhee leaving her position as CEO of StudentsFirst, Campbell, through her group Partnership for Educational Justice (PEJ), appears poised to take up Rhee’s torch and establish herself as the face of education reform. Her type of education reform echoes Rhee’s model with a strong focus on blaming teachers for poor performing schools and a disdain for teachers unions and teacher tenure laws, in particular.
When Brown contacted Davids and Pirozzolo, she told them she wanted to work with them and set up a meeting. On his way to the meeting Pirozzolo learned that Brown’s group had cancelled. They attempted to reschedule but soon learned that Brown was coming to New York City and seemed to have no interest in talking with them. Fearful that Brown was attempting to preempt their forthcoming lawsuit, they hurriedly found an attorney, Jonathan Tribiano, and filed their suit on the July 3rd. Pirozzolo paid the $250 filing fee out of his own pocket. He told me that they chose to file in Staten Island because they felt they would have a better chance of getting a sympathetic Republican judge than if they filed in Albany. Due to the hurried nature of their filing, they knew they would have to file an amended suit before too long.
After they filed, they heard once again from Campbell Brown who congratulated them as “brave parents” who were standing up for students and once again offering to help. Davids and Pirozzolo gladly accepted. However, Brown called them back a short time later and told them she didn’t have any money to support them. Instead, she offered to put them in touch with her attorney so that he could explain to them how bad their lawsuit was. Davids and Pirozzolo already knew their complaint needed to be improved and on July 24th, they filed an amended complaint.
Four days later Campbell filed her own lawsuit in Albany. In a tearful press conference, she said called the plaintiffs “incredibly brave”, saying she was “just proud to be holding [their] coats.”
On August 6th, Students Matter, the California group founded by millionaire David Welch which bankrolled the Vergara case, announced they would be supporting the plaintiffs in the Davids case. The legal representation would be taken over by the law firm Gibson Dunn with attorneys Randy Mastro, former Deputy Mayor of New York City, and Theodore Boutrous, lead counsel for the plaintiffs in the Vergara suit, in charge.
The next day, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman filed a motion asking that the court combine the cases in Staten Island due to their similarities. All parties agreed to this and next week, on September 3rd, there will be a hearing to formalize the consolidation.
After that, however, Davids and Pirozzolo told me “all hell broke loose.” Gibson Dunn attorney Mastro recently asked them to come to his office telling them he had “shocking news”. Mastro, they said, told them that Campbell Brown had contacted some of his other clients and those clients were now threatening to pull their business from his firm if they didn’t drop the Davids suit. In the meantime, their original attorney, Jonathan Tribiana had become “cagey” and wouldn’t answer their questions. Mastro assured them that there were plenty of other firms that would be willing to take on their case pro bono and that Gibson and Dunn would help them find someone.
Thursday night, less than an hour before I spoke with Davids and Pirozzolo, Gibson Dunn “fired” their clients. Because of this, they are currently without representation as they head into next Tuesday’s hearing. Students Matter, the California group bankrolling the lawsuit, is also pulling out.
Davids and Pirozzolo tell me that the players involved will not acknowledge any of this in public. The various players have said variously that Gibson Dunn was quitting their case because of a conflict of interest due to the other lawsuits that Davids is currently involved in or that it was because of “bad behavior” by Davids and Pirozzolo. None of the players are willing to go on the record to say that Campbell Brown acted like a playground bully, threatening everyone who supported them to isolate them and leave them without resources so that she and her group could take over their suit once it was consolidated with hers. Indeed, since they were fired, PEJ has reached out to them to “craft a productive path forward”, one that surely involves the case being handled by Brown’s PEJ attorneys with the shots being called by them.
Davids and Pirozzolo have found themselves both opponents of and allies with the New York teachers union United Federation of Teachers (UFT), at various times. And though their complaint doesn’t go after teacher tenure laws, they are still at odds with the UFT over the other elements of their suit (you can read their FAQ about it HERE.)
However, they now appear to share a common enemy: Campbell Brown.
Brown has long championed transparency and disclosure in her position as an anchor at CNN. However, now that she’s the one receiving the money, she has gone silent. On an appearance on the Colbert Report, she told Steven Colbert that she would not reveal her funders because if she did, people “are going to go after people who are funding us.” In his op-ed in Salon magazine, Gabriel Arana lays it out plainly:
If the pearl-clutching millionaires behind Campbell Brown’s lawsuit are too emotionally fragile to withstand any sort of public scrutiny, they have no business wading into a debate whose outcome will affect millions of students.
Brown’s secrecy about her funders is especially unconscionable given her background as a journalist. Her organization claims it wants to encourage debate about public education. But if anything, the Partnership’s lack of transparency only makes open dialogue more difficult. Without knowing who is behind the effort to get rid of teacher tenure, it’s difficult to tell if they are acting in the best interests of students or whether they are among the for-profit education entrepreneurs looking to cash in on the privatization of public education, which has become a multibillion-dollar industry.
From Davids’ and Pirozzolo’s perspective, they are the true grassroots activists and they are being silenced by a high-profile, well-funded celebrity. “We can fight with the unions but still find ways to work together,” Davids told me. “We piss off the unions all the time but we also piss off the education reformers. In this situation, the giants are fighting and we’re being pushed to the sidelines.”
I asked her why she thought Brown was doing this after initially offering to help. “She want to be the next Michelle Rhee,” Davids said. “This is all about her. When she did this, we had to get over the shock that she would to this to the parents and the students.”
Davids and Pirozzolo tell me they will continue on with their suit with or without the support of Students Matter and Gibson Dunn. “How can Campbell Brown go in front of cameras to talk about a lawsuit named ‘Davids’?,” Davids asked rhetorically. “This is our suit and we will keep fighting.”
There are reasonable people on both sides of the issues at stake with these lawsuits. However, if what Davids and Pirozzolo claim is true, it appears that Campbell Brown is using the court case to launch her new career as an education reformer. And, when when inconvenient parents got in the way of that, she used her influence and money from unknown sources to try to isolate and squash them. Rather than “holding their coats”, Brown appears to want to hold all of the power.
For their part, the New York City Parents Union is doing everything they can to make sure the world knows that Campbell Brown has bullied them and does not speak for them, sending out tweets like this one:
Campbell Brown does not speak for #DAVIDSvNY We are INDEPENDENT, GRASSROOTS PUBLIC SCHOOL PARENTS who can speak & advocate for OUR children
— NYC Parents Union (@NYCParentsUnion) August 29, 2014
The hearing to combine Brown’s complaint with theirs is on Wednesday. I will follow up as this story develops.
[CC Brown photo credit: Asa Mathat/Fortune MPW | Flickr, Pirozzolo and Davids photos courtesy of NYC Parents Union]