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Organization takes on New York's teacher tenure law

Former CNN anchor Campbell Brown and high-profile lawyer David Boies are teaming up to fight for teacher tenure reform in New York, and they're facing critics who are accusing them of attacking teachers' unions.

Boies, a well-known Democrat who has successfully argued before the Supreme Court against California's ban on same-sex marriage, disagreed.

"It is an attack on certain aspects that are hurting students," Boies said Thursday on "CBS This Morning." "I believe in unions, but it doesn't mean unions are always right."

Campbell Brown with plaintiffs who filed a lawsuit against New York State's teacher tenure law
Courtesy of Partnership for Educational Justice

Boies, whose parents were both public school teachers, is the chairman of Brown's Partnership for Educational Justice, an organization that helped seven public school parents file a lawsuit against New York State's teacher tenure law last month. This followed a California judge's ruling in June that said tenure laws violate students' constitutional rights to an equal education by keeping ineffective teachers on the job.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, disputed the notion that tenure was harmful to education, saying in a statement: "Tenure does not mean a job for life, a cloak of incompetence or an excuse for managers not to manage, but instead empowers teachers to help kids and ensures we base dismissals on just causes."

However, Brown said it's not just tenure that her organization is trying to address.

"It's the way tenure works together with dismissal protections that tenured teachers have, that no other public employee has, which makes it almost impossible to remove a grossly ineffective and incompetent teacher, or in some cases even an abusive teacher," she said, sitting alongside Boies on "CBS This Morning." "You read these stories in the papers of a teacher who engaged in sexual misconduct with a kid and they still aren't able to remove that teacher. It will take years and hundreds of thousands of dollars."

Boies used New York City as an example.

"Look at the rubber room. Look at the number of people who cannot be dismissed, despite misconduct, despite the fact that even the teachers union recognizes they're really not fit to be in the classroom," he said.

He said in order for there to be better teachers, they must be able to reward the teachers.

"You wouldn't go to a hospital, you wouldn't go to a law firm where the doctors and lawyers were not retained on merit, where they all had tenure regardless of competence," Boies said. "Parents feel the same way about schools that they send their children to."

Brown said while it addresses a minority number of teachers, it is important to do "everything possible to get the most effective teacher possible in the classroom."

"This is not an attack on teachers," Boies said, stressing that the case would not strip teachers of due process rights. "This is something that I think will, for the vast majority of teachers, make it a more professional occupation."

He also said he views the teacher tenure case as a civil rights issue.

"Education is a basic civil right. If you don't have a decent education, you lose all the opportunities that this country believes in, and our country loses the assets -- the ability to compete in a global economy," he said.

Liberals have been fighting for equal opportunity, Boies said, including banning school segregation based on race 60 years ago.

"We're now segregating our schools based on economics, we're segregating our schools based on where a child's parents live," Boies said. "And it has the same corrosive effect of destroying people's opportunity as racial segregation did."

Critics have said school budget cuts and inadequate funding are the real reasons for inequality in the education system, which Boies acknowledged is also an issue that needs to be addressed.

"But if we don't deal with the problem of getting the best teachers and keeping the best teachers and retaining the best teachers and paying the best teachers, we're not going to have quality education," Boies said.

Brown said striking down teacher tenure is a small part of the education reform that needs to be addressed.

"We're not saying this is a silver bullet," Brown said. "This is not intended to address every problem... But there's no reason we should ignore this one if there is a way to tackle it."