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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

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Jamie (Maggie Gyllenhaal), Jay Lefkowitz, and Nona (Viola Davis) are pleased with their plans to transform their children’s failing inner city school. (Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Kerry Hayes/Walden Media and Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images)

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.”

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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PhillipNagle says:

The biggest enemy of minority advancement in this country is the public school system and the bureaucracies and teachers they serve. If the KKK had devised a plan to keep minorities “in their place”, they could not have done a better job than the public schools. The only thing the public school teachers do well is make excuses for their failures.

    As a substitute teacher in the Inland Empire of CA I can tell you the major problem in the classroom is the lack of respect the students have for the teacher and each other. Many are not taught at home to get a good education so they can go far. These students constantly disrupt the class so NO ONE can learn. I am constantly battling behavior issues and have difficulty getting through the curriculum. THEN the parents of these students have the audacity to blame and question the school for why their “angel” is failing. When I had a long term assignment teaching preschool I actually had parents tell me it is the responsibility of the schools to teach their children and they don’t provide books at home and have NEVER read to them, taught them the alphabet, etc. The population of this school included many Native Americans, Hispanics, and a few African-Americans. A child’s FIRST TEACHER is their parent, but their parent’s seem to forget that. Before blaming the teachers, take a day off and see what we have to contend with. The amount of work a teacher does does not end at the end of the school day, we have not only papers to grade but learn new teaching methods and curriculum, prepare lesson plans that are alligned to the standards provided by the state, determine how to assist students who are falling behind others to catch up (intervention), refer those who may need special education assistance, etc. Our days are long (many teachers average 10 hours a day during the week and at least part of our time during the weekends) and the notion we get all these “vacations” is ludicrous. We spend our summers attending classes to increase our knowledge, preparing lesson plans (it never ends), etc. Oh yes, we also spend much of our OWN money to buy supplies for the classroom. When our salary is compared to those in the private sector we earn much LESS than others because of all the hoops we have to jump through to keep our credentials current.

      PhillipNagle says:

      Of course you included several of the “big lies” put out by the public school systems and their teachers. The biggest lie is that public school teachers are somehow underpaid. Most big city public school teachers have excellent salaries plus having a benefit package and retirement plan most people would envy. The second lie is that teachers don’t spend their summer vacations on vacation. The only teachers I know (and being part of the Jewish community I know many) that don’t spend their summers on vacation are those that have a summer job to supplement their already generous salaries. Finally, if the very expensive public school system can’t do the job we should get rid of it and try something else. I am tired of excuses. Let’s go 100% vouchers.

PhillipNagle says:

As usual, if you can’t defend the public school system attack its critics (or at least his wife).

The funny part of the Adelanto situation is that parents merely need to sign a card to request a change, but cannot change their mind! Do the “reformers” support cards for union enrollment?

Ask Mr. Lefkowitz if he supports union cards. Heh, heh.

I’m not defending poorly run schools, but beware the rescue. In other words, follow the money. Sadly, the children truly are secondary to the “so-called” reformers.

Louie the Lip says:

George H.W. and George W. Bush White Houses & The Jewish Connection.

BUSH, SOLOMON (1753–1795), U.S. patriot and Revolutionary War
soldier. Bush was born in Philadelphia,
Pa., the son of a merchant,
Mathias Bush. He was seriously wounded during a skirmish against the British in
September 1777, and taken prisoner. Freed, Bush was made a lieutenant colonel
in the Continental army (1779), the highest rank held by a Jewish officer in
the Revolutionary army. In 1782 Bush contributed toward a new building for the
Mikveh Israel Congregation in Philadelphia.
A prominent Mason, Bush also joined the Quaker Abolitionist Society. At his own
request he was buried in the Friends Burial Ground in Philadelphia.

[Leo Hershkowitz]
Moses talked to the FIRST BUSH & got more sense out of it than the American people got from George H & George W BUSH.
He, he, he

jcarpenter says:

Charter schools, magnet schools, private schools, corporate schools—all great ideas, yet still band-aids; you pull out kids from the schools that are left behind and abandon them. If those are all such great ideas, then implement what works for every school, not just select ones.

    PhillipNagle says:

    Typical excuse. If a system works better than the public school system let’s adopt it. It doesn’t have to be perfect just better. Not a very high standard.

      But charter schools as a whole are NOT better than public schools as a whole. There is also the issue of lack of transparency and some degree of fiscal abuses that are a recurring theme seen with charters and the use of vouchers. Charters are nothing but a gamble, and not a very sure bet at all.

dubiyarden says:


Can you spell “libel”? Your unprovable assertion about what Jay Lefkowitz’s wife said, meets the definition.

Can you spell “boorish”? That is how I would refer to a male who makes a sexist comment about a woman’s appearance.

Grandma J says:

Do Lefkowitz”s children go to public schools? He should keep out of the argument if his kids do not attend public schools.

    PhillipNagle says:

    Public schools are paid for by the government and should be the concern of all citizens. Of course by this argument Obama should keep out of discussions on the public schools.

gazelle says:

Why bother looking at the academic studies proving that the disadvantages of poverty are at the root of failing students, when you can just blame teachers?


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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