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Newton: A.J. Duffy in exile

A.J. Duffy is, at least for the moment, a man without a country.

He led United Teachers Los Angeles, the union that represents teachers in the nation's second-largest school district, for six bruising years, tussling with the mayor and several superintendents and racking up critics. Then he went on to found a charter school, infuriating his old allies in labor who reflexively, and stupidly, reject charters as a threat to their existence. And then the school that Duffy helped create, Apple Academy, announced that it didn't have room in its budget for a chief executive officer.

So Duffy's back to teaching. He says he loves it, relishes the classroom, is especially gratified to be helping special education students. He was one himself many years ago, before he shook off drug addiction and developmental problems and launched his career in education and labor. But as Duffy talks about how happy he is, it's fairly clear that he's not. He was a high-roller for six years, and he isn't anymore. He misses it. A lot.

"When you're at the top of the mountain and you have to step down, it's a big, big change," he said last week over a glass of wine. "For me, initially I missed the glamour.... After that, I miss the ability to make change. I make no bones about it. I miss it."

Duffy blames lots of others for his current place in the wilderness and for the state of education. He says his old friends in labor misunderstood his work in charter schools — the UTLA under Duffy had looked at them skeptically because they could hire nonunion teachers. He's not too impressed by his successor, Warren Fletcher. He also has his issues with the media, including me. In a column I wrote a year ago about Fletcher, I referred to Duffy's "bombastic thuggery," a phrase he, not surprisingly, didn't appreciate. When Duffy sat down for our drink last week, he began by pretending to pull a knife from his back, a reference to that column.

One group of UTLA leaders, according to Duffy, recently told him they were beginning to look at his administration "as the good-old days."

One thing's for sure: Duffy hasn't lost his taste for hyperbole. Recalling one fight, he says it ended not just with him making enemies but "being crucified." The district administration isn't just bad in Duffy's view; it's "stuck on stupid." He fulminates about billionaires — Eli Broad and Bill and Melinda Gates are, in his view, pointing education down the wrong path through their philanthropy. And he considers the district's failure to create smaller campuses a historic missed opportunity. Duffy's still searching for who's responsible for the lapse. As he put it, "Gimme a gun, tell me who to point it at, and I'll shoot the bastard."

And yet, I must admit there is something admirable about Duffy too. Yes, he sometimes defended teachers at the expense of innovation, but he did so out of the bedrock conviction that teachers have students' interests at heart and that protecting teachers is the best way to help students. School reform leaders like former state Sen. Gloria Romero, who often disagreed with Duffy, nevertheless credit him with allowing certain innovations to take hold — giving communities more control of their schools, for instance — by resisting pressure from his own union to fight. "Duffy," Romero said, "is somebody I'd like to clone."

Gone now from the leadership of UTLA, Duffy says he's intent on finding ways to form alliances between unions and charter schools. "We have to have a charter school that's union friendly," he said. Such a school, he believes, might demand extra from its teachers — longer hours, a willingness to pick up extra work — in exchange for giving teachers greater control over operations: helping to pick the principal, for instance. Those terms would be negotiated between the union and the administration as part of normal collective bargaining.

Moreover, Duffy insists he's not wedded to the way things are. He believes teachers should have to wait longer to get tenure and should have that tenure periodically renewed. He sees a role for incentive pay. He supports the use of standardized testing to evaluate teachers, though he argues, persuasively, that the tests should mean something to students so they don't merely toss them off, injuring their teachers in the process.

Most of all, Duffy craves a place back in the fray. The home page of his website is a virtual advertisement for himself. "I will consider any job opportunity whether full time or part time to continue working with others to transform public education," it notes, "charter or otherwise, that will help create quality education and collaboration between teachers and management."

Duffy makes no apologies for self-promotion and freely acknowledges his restlessness. As he said, "I want to do something big."

Jim Newton’s column appears Mondays. His latest book is "Eisenhower: The White House Years." Reach him at jim.newton@latimes.com or follow him on Twitter: @newton_jim.

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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