A Lawyer Who Won’t Back Down
Jay Lefkowitz is the Orthodox Jewish advocate in the real-life drama behind Maggie Gyllenhaal’s new film
The new 20th Century Fox movie Won’t Back Down—starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis as a parent-teacher duo that confronts a corrupt teachers’ union in their attempt to take over a failing Pittsburgh public school—is a fictionalized version of actual events in California, where several groups of poor, minority parents have faced off against unions and their allies. But one character you won’t meet in the movie is a key figure from the real-life drama: an Orthodox Jewish political hand named Jay Lefkowitz who heads the group of pro-bono lawyers advocating for the parents.
A veteran of both the George H.W. and George W. Bush White Houses, Lefkowitz has been at the forefront of school-choice efforts for two decades, first as a domestic-policy adviser and then as a litigator handling school-voucher cases in Wisconsin and Florida in the 1990s. In the years since, what began as a conservative cause has, through the rise of the charter-school movement, morphed into an issue that many progressives have embraced, believing that the market model can be used to push for faster and more effective change in public education for those at the bottom of the ladder.
But like their predecessors on the right, this new generation of reformers—including former District of Columbia Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee and former Clinton White House operative Ben Austin—has run into fierce opposition from teachers’ unions. They’re relying on battle-hardened warriors like Lefkowitz to keep judges on their side. “We’re the rabble-rousers and troublemakers, but it’s the court battles that make the difference,” Campbell Brown, the former CNN anchor who has recently gotten involved in education reform issues, told me. (She hosted screenings of Won’t Back Down at both the Republican and Democratic national conventions this summer.) “If Jay wins, it’s a big deal.”
Lefkowitz is currently fighting on several fronts. Along with partners in the Los Angeles office of his firm, Kirkland & Ellis, he is trying to help parents in the exurban community of Adelanto, Calif., on the western edge of the Mojave Desert, become the first to successfully pull the so-called “parent trigger” dramatized in Won’t Back Down—a petition right afforded to parents in schools rated as failing to either replace existing staff or convert the school into a charter. In New York, he is representing nonprofit charter operators seeking to open in existing city school facilities, and in Newark, N.J., Lefkowitz has gone to court on behalf of virtual charter schools, part of a broader effort by Newark Mayor Cory Booker to expand charter schools in the city.
“These cases are very far away from the earlier cases, because they don’t primarily involve federal or constitutional issues, and they don’t bring up establishment or free exercise of religion claims,” Lefkowitz told me when we met for breakfast earlier this week at the Loews Regency Hotel in Manhattan. “But they are cases where the status quo is being challenged.” That’s why, he said, he’s been willing to make almost weekly court appearances in New Jersey and wrangles his partners into devoting countless hours pro bono to these cases.
Lefkowitz remains unapologetic about the conservative ideological roots of the current school-choice wars. “All education reform is about creating competition,” he insisted. In Wisconsin, he said, public schools responded with tutoring once vouchers gave parents the wherewithal to choose private or parochial options. Charter schools, coupled with the determination of newly empowered school chancellors like New York City’s former schools head Joel Klein to shut down failing schools, could similarly force public teachers and administrators to step up, Lefkowitz argued. “You have to reinvigorate the public schools,” he added. “And you have to have a ground game, because ultimately what you’re talking about is changing the way local government operates.”
Lefkowitz makes an unlikely culture warrior. At 49, he is slightly baby-faced, with sandy hair and blue eyes behind thin-rimmed glasses. He grew up in what he describes as “a real neoconservative family”—though his father, Jerome, a labor lawyer who drafted New York’s landmark Taylor Law and who still chairs the state’s Public Employment Relations Board in Albany, told me he supported the Progressive candidate Henry Wallace in 1948 because people wearing Wallace buttons dropped the most generous contributions into the Jewish National Fund pushkes he carried on the subway as a teenager. “A large number of them contributed dollar bills rather than coins,” the senior Lefkowitz recalled. “That made an impression on me.”
Avoiding the U.N. circus would have sent a stronger message about the gravity of the Iranian threat