The first grader stood at the front of the classroom, the rest of his class looking on, laughing, as he scratched "Um" on the blackboard over and over.
The teacher, angry with the child for not speaking clearly, brought the child to the front of the classroom to mock and humiliate him. The boy’s crime was that he stuttered. And that teacher, Richard Parlini, is still teaching at the Queens elementary school where this event—and others like it—occurred.
When parents at the school discovered at the beginning of this year that their first graders would be taught by Parlini, they called Campbell Brown, a TV news reporter turned education reform activist who spoke Thursday morning about the issue at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in Washington, DC.
Brown is leading an effort to repeal teacher protection policies that make it nearly impossible to fire incompetent teachers like Parlini. She helped found the Partnership for Education Justice, which is helping parents sue schools with the goal of overturning these policies.
"I’m here today to talk about a new movement that I’m helping to lead which has a singular goal: ensuring that all of our students have access to good teachers," Campbell said at AEI. "It is about tenure, as you probably heard, but it is not just about tenure."
The Partnership for Education Justice is currently supporting several parents who are suing the state of New York over its policies for firing teachers. The New York lawsuit is coming on the heels of a similar lawsuit in California, Vergara v. California, where teacher tenure and other policies were overturned on the grounds that they violated rights provided in the California state constitution.
Brown described her group’s strategy as threefold: pressuring politicians, raising awareness, and "turning to the courts for justice" when necessary.
"Our goal here is not to be litigious," Brown said. Rather, the group is trying to launch targeted lawsuits in places where there is a real chance of success, she said.
This kind of lawsuit could spread beyond California and New York, Brown said. The Partnership is assembling a network of lawyers across the country who are willing to take on this kind of case for free on behalf of angry parents.
In New York, the suit is going after three policies: teacher tenure, teacher disciplinary policies, and seniority policies.
All three policies are not tailored to ensure that the schools provide good teachers to students, Brown contended. Rather, they are created to provide protection for teachers.
"This is less about the idea of tenure than the reality of tenure," Brown said.
In New York, school administrators decide whether to grant tenure after a teacher has been in the classroom for only three years, and if granted, the teacher effectively has a job for life.
The suit is not meant to go after teacher protections in general or antagonize teachers themselves, Brown argued. "Our parents are going after incompetent teacher protections," Brown said.
The dismissal and seniority policies are also not crafted to ensure that only good teachers are in the classroom. The disciplinary process is in the hands of an arbiter who is picked jointly by the school administration and the teachers union. And seniority policies force the newest teachers to be cut first, a policy known as "last in first out" or LIFO.
"The criteria for which teachers lose their jobs ought to be a little more thoughtful than who walked through the door last," Brown said.
While the lawsuits are seeking to end these policies, Brown conceded that tenure isn’t likely to disappear in a state like New York, where the teachers’ unions are so powerful. She is simply seeking a reform of tenure.
This fight is more than about irrational contract provisions, however, Brown said. Parents are fighting for their children.
"Their role in this comes from the heart and comes from their heartache," Brown said. "If you spend any time with them, you see that this, for them, is a question of not why would they get involved in a fight like this, but how could they not be involved?"
Children, Brown said, have been intimidated by teachers, seen their teachers fall asleep, and been called losers by their teachers. "They have been taught to have low expectations," she said.
Not everyone agreed with Brown’s assessment. Before the event approximately five protesters stood outside, waiting to welcome Brown with signs reading "Who funds Campbell Brown?" One protestor said she was only a parent, but another said she was both a parent and with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), a large teachers’ union.
"Campbell Brown should focus on what the real problems are with education, and it’s certainly not ‘just cause’ for teachers," said protestor Jennifer Porcari, a union organizer for AFT, referring to policies for firing teachers.
"Getting rid of tenure is not one of those challenges, as people who have children in the system that live it every day [know]", Porcari said.
Brown conceded that she does not have any children in the public school system—both of her children go to a private school. But she saw this as no reason she should not be involved in this fight.
"I am pretty good at helping people tell their stories," she said, referring to her earlier career in broadcast journalist with CNN and NBC.
"When did we become a country of people who only care about things that have a direct impact on our lives, and when did we stop caring about each other?" Brown said.
"I literally cannot believe that the teachers’ union’s message here is, how dare I care about this," Brown said. "The single most important message I want to convey to my children is that they care about other people."
As for the parents whose students are being taught by Mr. Parlini this year: Some of them are suing the state of New York, with Brown’s help.