A Union Giant Converts to School Reform

Published by EducationNews.org —  Los Angeles union-man AJ Duffy’s conversion to school reform and charter school warrior means seniority and protectionism have lost.

Game over: Hiring teachers by seniority lost big.

Protecting incompetent teachers also went down in defeat.

The story is a jaw-dropper:

Last July, term limits forced A.J. Duffy to step down as President of the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) after being elected twice, for a total of 6 years. Duffy, 67, happens to be built like a stereotypical Mafia don, speaks with gravelly voice in a native-Brooklyn accent, and sports expensive suits and two-toned shoes worthy of Tony Soprano. His active union involvement began in 1983. Locally, he was famous for never meeting a school reform he couldn’t despise.

Los Angeles’ Mayor Villaraigosa described him as “one unwavering roadblock to reform.”

In 2010 L.A. Weekly ran an expose called “The Dance of the Lemons,” covering the astronomical expense of either parking incompetent teachers in a “rubber room” where they were paid to do nothing, or letting them continue to mis-serve kids. In his “Speak Out” column, Duffy barked back that “the number of truly bad teachers in our ranks could fit on the head of a pin.”

He clutched the union torch no matter how bad it was for kids. That’s what such leaders get elected and paid well to do.

But on September 1, a scant two months later, Duffy announced that he’d become the executive director of the fledgling network of Apple Academy Charter Public Schools. That’s charter schools, long considered arch-enemies by union officials. Duffy once summarily dismissed charters as “the death and destruction of public education.” Unions claim charters siphon off resources from “real” public schools, which is to say 19th-century factory-model schools that see teachers as interchangeable cogs in an educational machine – hence the obsession with seniority as the only way to differentiate teachers. The real issue is that most charters are not unionized, which reduces the number of unionized teaching positions and the power and dues that come with. Charters are public schools, held publically accountable for their performance.

Now Duffy is submitting a proposal ASAP to open his own charter school next fall. Charters get a big win out of his conversion too.

Mind you, Duffy wants his school to be unionized, preferably with his old colleagues at the UTLA. But he’ll forgo any union affiliation that does not give him what he wants.

For example, with the same pugnacious language he used to fight on the other side, he insists his school be free of hiring by seniority. Moreover, he’d like the dismissal process for incompetent teachers to take under 10 days.

So here it is writ large: A union official’s job is to protect and enhance the health, welfare and power of the private corporation that is a teachers’ labor union.

But if an ex-union official expects to shoulder the responsibility of actually educating students, well, hold on! That’s a whole other story. Seniority and protectionist contract provisions will surely undermine academic success. When the chips are down, even a guy like Duffy knows that.

In 2010, Duffy testified to the state Senate against a bill that would have given school districts more flexibility regarding hiring and lay offs. California is among 12 states that mandate hiring-by-seniority and lay-offs by last-in/first-out. In a video clip of the hearing — on ajduffy.com – he says, “There is no credible data that show that doing away with seniority or tenure will radically improve student outcomes.” Parents would beg to differ. And what magic initiative does improve achievement “radically,” anyway? Duffy goes on to insist that the only effect of the proposed legislation will be to allow principals to fire teachers they don’t personally like and to hire cheaper, less senior teachers. (This latter accusation has merit, but seniority is not the solution.)

But that was then. Now Duffy wants guarantees that if the Los Angeles student population declines, his precious new charter school isn’t stuck with any of UTLA’s displaced teachers. Now he’s fighting to protect the hard, good work of interviewing, vetting, hiring and training a community of teachers. Now that his goal is education, he can’t afford to blow his chances of success by treating teachers as interchangeable parts, one just as good as another, in 19th-century school machinery.

Teachers are getting fed up with these hypocrisies. Across the country breakaway groups are telling their unions to quit with the incessant power mongering and instead, spend teachers’ hard-earned union dues on helping actual classroom teachers be more successful. The NewTLA is one such group.

In a recent Harris Poll, 72 percent of the 2,450 households surveyed said that they believe unions are too involved in politics and with fighting change instead of helping to bring it about. But more impressively, well over half – 60 percent – of the union households themselves feel similarly. Only 47 percent of union members believe they’re getting their money’s worth for the dues they pay.

In other words, the rank-and-file want their unions to lay off politics – fighting for practices and politicians that undermine education – and get busier with the important work at hand.

Like getting Duffy’s students educated.

Honestly, the fat lady sang. It’s over. Seniority and protectionism lost.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at GoLocalProv.com . She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com.

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