Laura Faer, statewide education director at Public Counsel, knew what she wanted to do in high school and never wavered
Published in 2012 Southern California Rising Stars magazine
on June 8, 2012
Updated on June 29, 2012
Q: What is your current title at Public Counsel? I’ve seen different ones attributed to you.
A: For close to three years I was the directing attorney at the Children’s Rights Project. In April of last year I transitioned to education rights director. I’m in charge of our statewide education rights work, which includes legislation, policy, advocacy and litigation.
Q: And what do you spend most of your time on?
A: At the moment I’ve been spending the most time on policy and legislation.
Q: Does that surprise you?
A: It’s not surprising because the legislative season has begun. And it shifts. Last year around this time I was spending most of my time on litigation.
Q: How do you triage something like education rights, which is so broad and contains so many problems?
A: It really stems from our work on the ground, day in and day out, representing young people in their schools. From that work, we’ve identified a number of systemic problems.
Q: Such as?
A: One large issue that we identified at Camp Challenger, one of the largest juvenile probation camps in the state, was the utter lack of education that meets any constitutionally required adequacy. Young people were placed in isolation, didn’t have anybody teaching them, were getting worksheets shoved under the door. We saw young people who were on their way to classrooms and would be kicked out, and there would be no record of how many days they were missing. They were being completely denied an education. We saw young people who were essentially being pushed through and not educated at all. The lead plaintiff, Casey A., had been given a diploma, but was completely illiterate.
So we had a system that was completely dysfunctional and not providing any educational benefit. Yet the system was collecting state funding to provide such an education.
Q: Out of curiosity, what is constitutionally required in terms of adequate education?
A: When you look at the cases that establish [the precedent], you have to have basic minimal requirements. Kids have to have access to the classroom; they have to be allowed to go to school; they have to be able to have opportunities that are similar to other similarly situated young people, among other things.
Q: Can you talk about the work you did helping to reform the zero-tolerance truancy law, where students were getting ticketed for being late?
We’ve been working on this for three years. I’ve actually been working on it longer because one of my first cases as a lawyer involved a person who had a truancy ticket.
I remember going down to LA court [seven years ago], and we stood in this long line that wrapped around the building. [My client] was a student with special needs and had not been getting her services. So the fact that she had missed school was not surprising. Because she was completely disaffected with school at that point.
They tried to take our case with about 15 other young people. The child was not going to be offered individual due process; she was going to be bunched with a group and brought into a room and asked whether, yes or no, she had missed school. I remember advocating for her to get an individual hearing. This was going to be an infraction, and go on her record, and she was going to get a fine, which was $240 at the time, but with penalties it could reach $800. If she wasn’t able to pay that fine, she could get her license suspended. This was one of my first introductions to what was really a backward policy. Fortunately, because of our representation, she received community service instead of a fine that her family could not afford.
[Three years ago] we began to work with the community rights campaign and the ACLU, and they were seeing the impacts on a whole-scale level: that young people who were taking public transportation, who were arriving late to school because their bus broke down, or it didn’t come at the right time, or it got stuck in traffic, they were being punished. There were huge sweeps occurring outside the school. There were police officers waiting to handcuff and arrest them and ticket them.
So we took on a number of different strategies. First, we did all the research to figure out how the statute worked and how it worked in the different agencies. Then we and our pro bonos began representing these young people in the courts to try to figure out what was happening to them. We were doing that for a while to really gather information. We negotiated with and drafted, along with our partners at the ACLU, the first directive with the Los Angeles Police Department. We helped analyze the data—47,000 tickets; a racial breakdown that was primarily and disproportionately targeting African-American and Latino students—and we wrote a letter to the Los Angeles Police Department to ask them to make a change. Fortunately they were really responsive. In fact, I would say they were leaders.
Q: They were probably tired of it.
I think they were quite surprised at how many young people were being ticketed right when the bell was ringing or a few minutes after.
We then requested data—under laws that allow public access to data—from Judge [Michael] Nash, and from the court that he oversaw, the informal juvenile court, where all of these tickets go. We wrote several documents outlining all of the reforms we hoped would take place. We engaged in multiple meetings with different parties and stakeholders. We helped draft the amended curfew statutes that Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa recently signed into law [in March 2012].
It’s been a long, long process.
Q: Is it dispiriting, looking into these matters and seeing all of the problems, or does it energize you?
There are days when I’m mostly just angry? But I think what it does is make me work harder.
One of the things that I love about this job is I can use every tool at my disposal to solve a problem. For example, we identified a systemic issue because we had a client, a foster youth, who had been placed in 16 different schools since his time in foster care. He was desperately behind. The law said that you can stay in the same school even if the county moves you to another home—but you can only stay until the end of the year. He was finally, for the first time, having attachments to the teachers, and he was making relationships, and he was going to school regularly and his grades were going up, and the school said, “Too bad. The law says at the end of this school year you have to leave. Because you are no longer in our district.”
So from that case, from that individual child example, we knew there were thousands of other children facing the same thing. So we sponsored legislation that Sen. [Carol] Liu and Assembly member [Julia] Brownley co-authored.
Q: Assembly Bill 1933?
Exactly. In that situation we were able to change the law for thousands of children in the state [allowing foster children to continue in their school of origin]. That’s a great joy: to feel like you can make a difference when a problem is presented; you can actually see the change happen for the young people you’re trying to help.
Q: Public Counsel is called “the largest pro bono law firm in the nation.” How is it funded?
A number of ways. There are funds created through donations, grants and foundations. There are funds that are created through cy pres awards. We sometimes get attorneys’ fees on the cases we work on.
Q: I assume you get paid less than you would at a typical private law firm.
It’s a public-interest organization so we make public-interest lawyers’ salaries. We are a nonprofit. We only represent people who cannot afford to pay us.
But we have access to incredible resources because of the generosity of the private law firms in Los Angeles County. When we say we’re the largest pro-bono, public-interest firm, what that means is there are hundreds if not thousands of people who give of their time. That’s an extraordinary thing. It’s extraordinary to have the talent of the private bar and their willingness to engage with us. All of the impact litigation that I’ve done at Public Counsel has been done with the help of private law firms. They know how to do this. They’re extraordinarily good. They’re respected. And they bring such a great perspective.
Q: Education reform is such a huge, volatile, topic. What do you think is missing from the public discussion?
It’s a pretty robust discussion, actually. What I think is missing, if anything, is the voices of the actual children and families that are affected. A lot of people discuss these issues, but it is extraordinarily powerful when you hear the stories of the young people, their parents, their teachers. Those stories are what informs the solution. I think that’s a really critical piece. In our work we to try to ensure that their voices are heard.
Q: So what drew you to the law?
In high school, I started a program for mentoring and tutoring children who are in homeless shelters. I’ve always wanted to see our society functioning in a way that provided more equality. My father was the first person on his side of the family to go to college and he instilled in us the American Dream philosophy, and education is the most important piece.
And what I saw growing up, particularly in California, was that the education system is not the same for everybody. You could be a few miles apart and you could have a completely different experience. And if you’re homeless, or if you’re living in substandard housing or non-stable living conditions, or you’re in foster care, then you’re much less likely to get the very basics you need. It was something I always felt was important in terms of leveling the playing field. I was a community organizer, a communications director; I worked for a member of Congress. I did a couple of things before I went to law school, but it was always very clear to me that this was going to be my life’s work.
Q: So you’re one of the few people who went to law school not to be a lawyer per se but for social justice issues.
I don’t know about “few people,” but, yes, that was the reason.
Q: Was it difficult to not deviate from this path? Were there moments when you felt tugged in a different direction?
To be honest, I was completely focused. I went to law school for this singular purpose. So it wasn’t hard for me. I was always searching out opportunities. In Columbia, where I went to law school, there was a good community that I was able to find and work with, and I got involved. I helped work on children’s rights. There was an education rights group at the school that I helped co-chair. I was in a small nonprofit and business clinic. Both of my summers I worked in public interest law.
Q: And after graduation?
I clerked for Judge Stephen Reinhardt on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals for a year, which was an extraordinary experience. Judge Reinhardt is not only a skilled writer but a skilled strategist. Some people call him “The Liberal Lion.” He is a fierce judge. He works extraordinarily hard to help ensure that he understands each and every case that comes across his desk. I already had a strong work ethic but from him I learned even more what that means.
Then I was fortunate to receive a Skadden fellowship.
Q: Skadden Arps?
Yes. Skadden Arps funds fellowships for newly minted lawyers in public interest and social justice. It’s a two-year fellowship. It’s really like you’re applying for your dream job. You actually get to specify the project you get to work on, the public interest organization you want to work for.
Q: What was yours?
I established a legal education clinic in south Los Angeles. I got to focus on one particular community and area: to really not only represent individual students and parents who were facing educational issues in schools, but also to think about systemic change. It was a combination of law and organizing, it was a community-based education clinic, it was everything that I want to do. That was an incredible opportunity.
Q: What are some of the things that surprised you about the law that you didn’t anticipate when you started?
The length of time it takes to get a resolution to a problem that’s so pressing.
One thing that’s been surprising, pleasantly surprising, is … the people in Los Angeles who are running our courts, Judge Nash, Judge Donna Groman, they’re extraordinary individuals. They are not only interested in running courts that make sense for children, they’re interested in figuring out how to bring the community into that process. It’s incredible the change that can be made when good people get together around the table.