Ithink I have one of the best legal jobs in the country: Legal Counsel for the Tennessee State Board of Education. Although I didn't know a job like this existed before or during law school, I've discovered that there is abundant work in a variety of settings that is rewarding, exciting and can be done by law school graduates who are "creative problem solvers" (former Vanderbilt Professor Christopher Yoo told my class that's what good lawyers are). Not only does my job incorporate public service; it's unusual and a lot of fun.
I was prompted to reflect on my job by Charles Michael's column in the recent issue of the Vanderbilt Lawyer. He wrote about the commitment to the common good each of us has made by becoming lawyers: "Equal justice is no more than a pipe dream unless citizens can use our justice system," he said. I'm grateful that my job as an attorney is to help all Tennessee children be able participants in our democratic communities.
To celebrate Constitution Day on September 17, I spent the morning talking with four different middle-school classes about education and the United States Constitution. To show the students how the Constitution affected them, I'd created a short skit on due process with a student volunteer playing the role of "Constitution Woman" who forced me (acting as a teacher) to give a student due process before expelling him from school. I used quotes from Justice Stephen Breyer, Pericles and Milton Friedman, and showed a clip from the movie, The Pursuit of Happyness.
Justice Breyer recently wrote, "The Constitution is not a document designed to solve the problems of a community at any level-local, state, or national. Rather it is a document that trusts people to solve those problems themselves." 1 I showed the students how, across the nation, out of 100 ninth graders, an average of only 18 will complete either an associate's degree in three years after high school or a bachelor's degree in six years after high school. 2 We discussed how our democracy cannot work-we will not solve the political, economic and environmental problems we face-unless more people have access to more education.
The Board works through collaboration with the State Department of Education, schoolteachers, leaders from around the state, parents and other stakeholders. I relish the fact that we have authority to recommend changes to our Board that may dramatically affect the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. And the back-row-of-the-classroom troublemaker in me quietly enjoys the fact that much of our work is upsetting the status quo. In the last year, we've implemented major changes to high school graduation requirements and the criteria for preparing principals. We're currently working on dramatic changes to the way teacher preparation programs are approved in order to increase the supply of effective teachers in our state.
To a large extent, I'm my own boss. The Executive Director of the State Board-my actual boss-divides the work of his staff based on those areas of education policy we are particularly interested in. So, I'm currently the "go-to guy" on issues related to public charter schools, home schooling, private schools and special education. I regularly convene and work with task forces to revise pertinent policies and rules. I've attended and presented at several conferences on public charter schools, visited and reported on all of the state's charter schools, and, this year, I'll serve on a legislatively mandated task force to study Tennessee's current charter school statutes.
My evaluation each year is based on my progress on projects I've planned with some input from my boss. Each time I've seen something I wanted to work on, he's given me the time and tools to do so. Last year, for example, I led our staff's revision of the Board's master plan for PreK-12 education. We took what had been a 50-page document and turned it into an eight-page brochure that clearly outlined the Board's vision for all Tennessee students in a form easily accessible to parents, teachers, legislators and students. It has become a lens for analyzing all the work the Board does.
I regularly teach school leaders about how to help their teachers meet high ethical standards and improve access to high-quality programs for community members. Together with attorneys from the State Department of Education, I've written short plays to show how to conduct student disciplinary hearings. Actually, we showed how not to conduct them and gave the school administrators prizes for recognizing our errors.
I enjoy having a small and interesting litigation docket. As counsel to the Board, I prosecute teacher license suspension and revocation cases. Local school districts employ and fire teachers, but the State Board has authority to suspend or revoke teaching licenses for certain conduct. Teachers may request a hearing before such an action is taken. In those cases, an administrative law judge sits on behalf of the Board, and I represent the Board. I interview students, parents, teachers and other witnesses, and gather materials from courts and other state agencies.
I even appear on TV or in newspaper stories every few months, usually after a teacher has grabbed the spotlight for something other than teaching. My wife wishes I would powder my forehead before the TV shoots, but I rarely have time to prepare. So, my receding hairline shines on.
I talk to parents and community leaders about solving problems short of litigation on a daily basis. Unfortunately, the world of education law and policy is not transparent. People often don't understand the political organization of schools. They don't know who has authority to address their grievances, and who doesn't (the State Board, for example, has almost no direct authority besides the revocation of teacher licenses). Sometimes this leaves parents proclaiming, "Well, I guess I'll have to call the TV station and an attorney!" Those approaches may or may not be effective, but at least I've told them the other routes for redress they have besides the media and the courts.
Each week during the legislative session, I review bills on the education committees' dockets with our staff. I've had opportunities to draft and revise proposed legislation, and I manage the submission process for all rules passed by the Board under authority delegated by the legislature. I also answer questions from legislators and other government agencies about State Board rules and policies.
I am grateful for the opportunity to apply my experience as an Assistant Attorney General to these cases. I'm now a client of the division at the Attorney General's office where I previously worked. When officials request opinions from the Attorney General, the Deputy Attorney General for that division will usually consult with me about how the Board interprets legislation or applies State Board rules.
I feed my interest in technology by reading and sharing information on education in technology to board members and staff. I write a blog for our office that is read by subscribers across the state and includes embedded video, audio and links to articles that I hope will prompt further discussion and education reform to increase access to great teaching for Tennessee students. I took a turn for a few years as the staff member that maintained our web site and I'm still overseeing our technology planning and maintenance.
Because my long-term career goal is to be Commissioner of Major League Baseball, I find ways to incorporate my interest in athletics into my work. I attended a conference at the law school and wrote an article for the Journal of College and University Law about Title IX in college athletics. I trained school administrators on the implications of Title IX in secondary school athletic programs. I also spend a few spare hours a week on a nonprofit program called Athademic (www.athademic.org), which uses the experiences of scholar-athletes, and professionals and researchers in fields such as sports law and economics and sports architecture, to make academic subjects immediately relevant to middle and high school students.
Of course, there's a disadvantage: I make one-half or one-third the salary of many of my law school classmates. But I'm home every night for dinner and have time to walk to the school bus stop every morning with my three young children before I catch my bus downtown. The law school's loan repayment assistance program (LRAP) covers half of my student loan payments each month. And my salary is sufficient for us to live on one income, own a home and have a high-speed Internet connection. I must admit, though, we only have one TV and it isn't high-def!