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
Jay Lefkowitz’s mother, Myrna, taught Hebrew, and Lefkowitz graduated from a Jewish high school with seven students before going on to Columbia University for both his undergraduate and law degrees. As a young White House staffer handling domestic policy in the administration of George H.W. Bush, he worked with Tommy Thompson, then governor of Wisconsin, and Lamar Alexander, then Bush’s education secretary, who conceived the first school voucher programs. “It was cutting-edge public policy reform,” Lefkowitz told me. “And as a lawyer, it was all about the constitutionality of the vouchers.”
With Congress still years away from Newt Gingrich’s Republican Revolution, Lefkowitz’s job from his West Wing perch was to help ideological allies like Thompson push reforms at the state level. “I was a strong proponent of vouchers, from an education perspective, but I was also committed to them as a committed Jew who believes Jewish education is absolutely necessary for Jewish continuity,” said Lefkowitz, who sent his three children to Ramaz, the Modern Orthodox school in Manhattan.
After leaving the White House, he joined Kirkland & Ellis, where he and his former Bush Administration colleague Ken Starr were drafted into helping Thompson defend the constitutionality of a voucher program in Milwaukee. Lefkowitz eventually won the case in oral arguments before the state’s Supreme Court. “Starr was in the middle of the inquiry about Monica Lewinsky, so he sent this great understated letter saying he was otherwise occupied,” Bob Chanin, who argued the opposing side as the longtime counsel for the National Education Association, which represents teachers’ unions, told me.
In 2002, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a different voucher program in Cleveland, allowing parents to use public money to pay for parochial schools, but efforts to expand voucher programs stalled nationwide. Meantime, the popularity of charter schools—first established in Minnesota in 1991 and widely seen as a way to open up educational options within the context of the public-school system—rose, the wheels greased in part by a 2001 decision by the National Education Association not to oppose charter schools wholesale. “In the early 2000s, we had pure Democratic support opposing vouchers, but that came at a price, because they said, ‘Give us something we can support,’ ” Chanin explained. “And that was charter schools.”
But charter schools are far from a universal alternative to troubled public schools, which is what led Ben Austin, the former Clinton staffer, to launch Parent Revolution, a nonprofit aimed at helping parents push for reform in their schools, in 2008. “Fundamentally, we want to make public schools more public by being more accountable to the parents and children they serve,” Austin told me. “The only way we’re going to get there is to affect an unapologetic transfer of power from the status quo to parents.” In 2010, Austin helped draft California’s parent trigger law, which in theory allows parents to turn their schools over to charter operators—even over the opposition of elected school boards.
This has prompted charges from some that the trigger turns parents into agents for expansion-minded charter school operators. “It raises the question of who owns the public schools,” said Diane Ravitch, a professor of education at New York University and longtime proponent of public education. “Do users of a facility own the facility? Suppose tenants of a housing project vote to take over the project and give it to a private developer. Should prisoners be able to take control of a jail? Or people riding in a public bus, who decide the driver is crummy? They don’t own the bus because they’re riding on the bus.”
Nevertheless, the parent trigger concept has already spread to six states beyond California. In June, it was endorsed by the national Conference of Mayors; politicians including Booker of Newark, former Obama Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel in Chicago, and Antonio Villaraigosa, the Democratic mayor of Los Angeles, have been vocal proponents of the measure. Last month, a Gallup poll found 70 percent support for trigger laws.
But the California law has yet to be successfully applied. In 2010, Parent Revolution organized parents in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Compton to try and take over McKinley Elementary, which was ranked in the bottom of 10 percent of schools statewide. Lefkowitz read a Wall Street Journal feature about it and decided to get involved. “I said, ‘These guys are fantastic, but they are going to get clobbered,’ ” Lefkowitz told me. He called to offer Kirkland’s services and brought in Mark Holscher, a partner in the Los Angeles office, to handle the day-to-day aspects of the Compton takeover effort, which ultimately failed after parent petitions were declared invalid on technical grounds.
“The two people without whom there would be no parent trigger laws are Jay Lefkowitz and Barack Obama,” Austin said. “Parent trigger passed as a direct result of Obama’s Race to the Top, and right after that we found ourselves embroiled in the quagmire with Compton Unified. So, if Jay hadn’t called us, I don’t know where we’d be.”
Now Lefkowitz is looking for definitive victory at the Desert Trails elementary school in Adelanto—one that could help translate the chatter around Won’t Back Down into results. The movie’s producers, Walden Media, which backed the 2010 pro-charter school documentary Waiting for ‘Superman,’ already have a website dedicated to spurring parent activism, but Lefkowitz wants to offer a concrete example. “A movie like this has the capacity to bring the issue to a broader public,” Lefkowitz said, “but you need court battles to validate it.”
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