Lief, Civil Rights Attorney & Education Visionary
by Joan Baum,
in the professional development of this leading civil rights
attorney turned top-level educational leader? She pauses; Beth
Lief’s really thinking this through, there will be nothing
pat, rehearsed in her answer. Slim, almost diminutive, this
smart, focused education mover and shaker projects an easy-going
manner despite the intensity of her work and the passion with
which she pursues her objectives. Yes, there are colleagues
whom she has particularly admired over the years, among them
Jack Greenberg, groundbreaking head of the NAACP’s Legal Defense
and Education Fund, with whom she worked, Judge Morris Lasker,
for whom she clerked and from whom she absorbed an estimable “notion
of justice,” the education scholar Lauren Resnick, whose emphasis
on higher standards confirmed Lief’s own course toward rigorous
curricula, but most of all—the mentor of her life has
been her “father, a Rabbi.” Her voice softens, she leans forward
as though the intimacy of the recollection might bring back
the days when she made rounds with him, when he was chaplain
for Legal Aid, ministering in prisons and poor neighborhoods
and instilling in her a deep commitment to social justice.
His heritage has been her life’s work as a moral imperative,
first as a public interest and civil rights attorney and then
as an articulate advocate for improving urban public education,
especially for disadvantaged youngsters, including children
in special education.
before she went to college (Barnard, a fourth year at Yale)
and then, on scholarship, to Law School (NYU) she had been
active in her suburban high school’s Freedom Center, where
she came to appreciate the necessity of “power” in making systemic
change. The move to law school was inevitable, and for close
to nine years thereafter, she worked on and eventually headed
up the health and housing dockets for the Legal Defense Fund.
Among her cases was her suit against Mayor Koch’s plans to
close city hospitals. More work on class action affirmative
action led to her successfully litigating the1981 Kansas City
School Desegregation Case, which taught her an important lesson:
she saw that while courts could be a last resort for “access,” they
could not litigate “quality.” This awareness propelled her
into the work she has been doing now for over 20 years.
son with special education needs also prompted her to join,
establish, and head up, in succession, a striking number of
important panels on both special and general education for
K-12. She laughs, trying to remember all the boards on which
she has served, federal, state and regional, but points out
that no matter the number, her work “is always the same.” She
is a hopeful realist. She knows, for example, that the city
needs 1,400 good leaders, and that “we don’t yet have them,” but
is adamant that improvements in literacy and math can be made
and that not enough is being asked of youngsters. There will
be schools that don’t make it, but cynicism is hardly an answer;
it’s merely an attitude, you can’t do anything with it.
prime example of her determination was her extensive work as
founding president of New Visions For Public Schools, the largest
such nonprofit in the city, with initiatives in over 700 schools
and national replication under Annenberg and NSF grants. Central
to the New Visions mission, says Lief, is the belief that solid
principles of learning in small-scale schools can overcome
low expectations. Creating such schools was only part of the
enterprise, however. Equally important was ensuring that leaders
developed others as leaders. You can have all the money in
the world but if you don’t have sustaining investment in “human
capital,” nothing will last. In the late `80s, early `90s,
a heady time for school reform, when technological resources
seemed particularly promising, the indefatigable Beth Lief
was soon moving around the Department of Education as VP for
Strategic Planning, for the Internet-based Teachscape, a venture
she enjoyed but that took her away from the nonprofit world.
Is it any surprise, then, that this past February she joined
the internationally regarded Institute for Learning as a National
Fellow to help incorporate high-level performance structures
in districts 1 and 2 in the Bronx and to serve as site liaison
for coordination efforts linking research and practice.
to working in areas of greatest need, back to her professional
roots. Her father would have been proud.#
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