Limousine Liberal David Boies Wants to Fix Our Schools

They used to be called "Limousine Liberals." Now, dilettantes like David Boies are known as corporate reformers.

Boies has become the kinder, gentler face of the blood-in-their-eye teacher-bashing of Michelle Rhee and Campbell Brown. A board member of Rhee's "astroturf" anti-union StudentsFirstNY, Boies will co-host the Campbell - "I'm blaming the teachers unions" - Brown dog and pony show, the Partnership for Educational Justice. Presumably, the liberal Boies will be more credible in spinning their incredible soundbite - the striking down our fundamental rights is "pro teacher."

Boies is shilling for the decade-long, test-driven, scorched earth campaign that demonstrates its pro-student commitment by imposing nonstop test prep on kids, and crippling teachers' power to resist mandates for soul-killing, bubble-in accountability.

There once was a time when Democrats were the party of the people. Rich and poor persons from all backgrounds formed "big tent" coalitions for equity and justice. Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, the Kennedys, and many others rubbed elbows with working people in struggles for civil rights and economic justice. With deindustrialization and the decline of labor unions, fewer and fewer progressive leaders have any experience in the working worlds where most people live.

Boies joins an unfortunate tradition of some elites posing as working class heroes/civil rights advocates; when Leonard Bernstein and Marlon Brando went slumming and hosted revolutionaries, however, that was merely an embarrassment. Bernstein and Brando, like Bois, were sincere and superbly talented in their own fields. But, they leaped to weird conclusions without looking at realities that they didn't understand.

Boies claims no experience with public school teaching. I don't imagine he actually knows and loves any individual poor students of color. I wonder how many he takes out sailing on his yacht, for instance. But he loves them in the abstract. Not realizing how much harm his agenda would do to actual students, Boies would help drive teaching talent out of schools where it is harder to raise test scores.

I wonder if Boies fully realizes that the lawsuits he is fronting for are merely props in assault on the teaching profession, as well as unions and the democratic governance of public schools. Whether he knows it or not, Boies is fronting for a market-driven agenda which, as Karen Lewis observes, seeks competition-driven schools that would turn out Masters of the Universe and Walmart greeters.

Boies gives no hint of having read the vast body of social science that argues against the test and punish policies that his allies would impose. I wonder if he has even studied the five papers cited as research by the Partnership for Educational Justice website, much less the evidence that fellow corporate reformers presented in Vergara v California, the first of these legal campaigns against the rights of teachers. I would be shocked if he understood how the top Vergara expert witnesses presented evidence that argues against his New York case.

It is virtually inconceivable that Boies has taken the time to understand the common, questionable methodology of the small group of narrow papers that supposedly support Brown's, Rhee's and his claims, and how irrelevant it is to the complexities of school improvement. I wonder if he's curious about why data-driven reformers have created an echo chamber that ignores the lessons of the long history of successful and failed school improvements.

Boies says that he and his wife have hosted Teach for America teachers and he is impressed with their enthusiasm. In my experience, however, once TFAers spend some time in the classroom they usually realize that the inequitable distribution of teachers is not due to tenure, but due to attrition. If he had the time and inclination to listen to educators, Boies might have felt compelled to lead a campaign for full-service community schools where teachers could better help overcome poverty.

Sarah Lahm's "When Education Reform Comes Knocking" could serve as a valuable corrective for non-educators who don't understand that a little knowledge about school reform is a dangerous thing. A volunteer from another astroturf organization, Students For Education Reform, knocked on Lahm's door. The student's only knowledge of education reform came from her internship at a charter school. She explained, "We are just against the teachers' union, because they give people jobs and then the teachers don't work very hard. Once they get tenure, they just stop trying to really teach kids."

Before Lahm's blood could boil, she took a breath, and a second look at the volunteer. Lahm saw:

She was nice; I could see that. She was willing to talk with me. She was young. If I was in college now, and I was a lot younger and less jaded, it might be me standing at some stranger's door, trying to convince them that teachers' unions are the root of all evil.

So, the young SFER volunteer was told what an "astroturf" or fake grassroots interest group is, and how she was unwittingly helping one. Lahm provided a primer on education policy and made a pitch for full-service schools, which offer "onsite medical, dental, and mental health clinics, as well as comprehensive academic, athletic, and extracurricular services to students, staff, and families."

Lahm sent her away with a copy of Diane Ravitch's book, Reign of Error.

We teachers would welcome an equal opportunity to school Boies on education research and what it really takes to create equity. I don't expect Boies to take the time to study the "Billionaires Boys Club" hypotheses on how to improve schools, or how and why their agenda has caused so much damage to teachers and students in high-poverty schools.

But, Boies is a lawyer and it would not be too much to ask him to look into both sides of the biggest legal issues. As Education Week's Steve Sawchuk writes in the context of Whoopi Goldberg's "rant," and other high-profile personalities recruited to the corporate reform campaign, "tenure laws--which prevent teachers from being dismissed without cause, typically established in a hearing--are actually complex, obscure, and context-specific."

For every complicated problem, there is an answer that is quick, simple and wrong. It's great that Boies likes socializing with current and former TFA instructors, and it is also great that he loves yachting. But, I doubt he would trust his boat to sailors or mechanics who have no experience on the water or fixing boats. And, that raises some questions.

How much time do elites like David Boies invest in consequential decision-making before investing in a yacht or another hobby? How little effort do they invest in understanding public schools before they impose their hunches on society?