Fact check

Three takeaways from The Colbert Report's teacher-tenure talk

PHOTO: Via The Colbert Report
News-anchor-turned-education-activist Campbell Brown appeared on The Colbert Report to discuss teacher tenure.

The debate over New York’s teacher tenure laws moved from the steps of City Hall to the studios of The Colbert Report on Thursday night. Campbell Brown appeared on Colbert’s show to discuss the recent lawsuit she’s spearheading that challenges those job protections for teachers.

Brown leads the Partnership for Educational Justice, a newly created organization that helped file the case, Wright vs. New York, in Albany. The suit charges that the job protections leave ineffective teachers in the classroom, and specifically challenges the “last in, first out” policy in which districts lay off teachers based on seniority, the too-short amount of time, plaintiffs feel, that administrators have to decide whether a teacher is effective enough to get tenure, and disciplinary statutes that make firing ineffective teachers a lengthy process.

Her appearance was a bit tense as Colbert pushed Brown on a few contentious issues, including her anti-teachers union stance and her funding sources.

Since a minutes-long interview can’t capture much nuance, here’s what you need to know:

1. The equal access argument
When Colbert asked whether the lawsuit is focused on ensuring equal access to education, Brown said yes. “That’s exactly right,” she said, mentioning the California decision that found teacher tenure unconstitutional earlier this summer.

However, while the California case argued that teacher tenure violated the state’s guarantee of equal educational opportunities, the two New York lawsuits do not. Instead, they claim that the job protections violate the state constitution’s guarantee of a “sound basic education.”

Many people have been speculating on the likelihood of a New York case succeeding, so differences between the two states’ cases are worth noting.

2. Getting rid of incompetent educators
The Wright case argues that it takes too much time and costs too much money to get rid of incompetent teachers and that, as a result, principals and districts often avoid that process.

“It takes, on average, 830 days to fire a teacher who has been found incompetent,” Brown said on the show.

However, that’s not the clearest information. According to the NYS School Boards Association, which is whom Brown and the lawsuit cite, it actually took 830 days for an incompetency hearing to reach a decision – not to end in a firing. It took an average of 520 days for all proceedings to reach a decision, including misconduct cases. Those figures come from 2004-2008 and they exclude New York City cases.

More updated data from the State Education Department show it’s been taking less time to resolve disciplinary cases recently. For fiscal year 2013, it took 177 days, on average, to reach a decision statewide, and 190 days in New York City.

3. Follow the money
Parents and teachers organized by the Alliance for Quality Education, an advocacy group that receives funding from the state’s teachers union, showed up outside Colbert’s midtown studio to protest Brown’s appearance. The American Federation of Teachers created a Twitter hashtag, #questions4campbell, which started to pick up speed before the show and succeeded in lobbing a question into Colbert’s interview notes.

“Your organization, where’s its money come from?” Colbert said. “That’s one of the things they asked me to ask you.”

Brown initially skirted the question by saying the law firm Kirkland & Ellis is taking the case pro bono.

“So the Partnership for Educational Justice has not raised any money so far?” Colbert asked.

“Yeah, we are raising money,” Brown said.

“And who’d you raise it from?”

“I’m not going to reveal who the donors are because the people who are out–.”

“I respect that because I’ve had a super PAC,” Colbert joked.

“But part of the reason is, the people who are outside today, trying to protest, trying to silence our parents who want to have a voice in this debate–.”

“Exercising their First Amendment rights,” Colbert said.

“Absolutely. But they’re also going to go after people who are funding this,” Brown said. “And I think this is a good cause and an important cause and if someone wants to contribute to this cause without having to put their name on it so they become a target of the people who are outside earlier today, then I respect that.”

“Well, I respect… you,” Colbert said.

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School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede