Teachers union must be a leader

A.J. Duffy walked into the restaurant like a man on his way to a fight, with quick footwork and fierce eyes. We'd been sparring from a distance, and now here we were, face to face at a downtown eatery.

I was a little nervous until I saw his feet.

Who wears two-tone saddle shoes?

Footwear isn't the only thing that puts Duffy in another era. The chief of United Teachers Los Angeles squeezes out words like an old-time union heavy, with a sandpapered New York accent. And by the way, he doesn't like being called a union boss. He'd prefer "charmingly cocky."

We should get to know each other better, Duffy said as he slid into his seat.

All right then, cards on the table.

I'm the son of a Teamster and I've been a union member most of my career, though I'm not at the moment. I appreciate the wages, benefits and security that unions have brought to millions of Americans. But I've never closed my eyes to the abuses or excesses, or to the protection of deadbeats with lots of seniority.

My column last Sunday was about a teacher at Monroe High School in the San Fernando Valley who got laid off in the latest cutbacks despite raves from her supervisor. The supervisor called out Duffy and the union for protecting lesser teachers rather than leading the way on a better hiring and firing system. My assignment for Duffy was to come up with some career advice for the unemployed young teacher.

"I don't have an answer," he admitted. "But let's put it in a different context."

If everyone would follow its lead, Duffy said, the union could build a reform movement in which all good teachers were gainfully employed. And where would the money come from? Essentially, he'd take a wrecking ball to the Beaudry Avenue headquarters of L.A. Unified and spend the savings on classrooms.

"They'd be a conduit for resources," Duffy said of the district's greatly diminished role.

Once the district is reduced to a smoldering ruin, Duffy would like to see clusters of 10 or 11 schools that take kids from K-12 and are run by consortia of administrators, parents and teachers, with big emphasis on teachers.

"We're the professionals," said Duffy.

OK, interesting concept. But it's more of a hallucination than a vision, and UTLA doesn't have the muscle to make it happen.

As long as the union is as devoted to protecting incompetent teachers as it is to championing the good ones, I'm not sure it is going to support the kind of reforms that put kids first.

Besides, it's quite a trick for UTLA to call itself reform-minded when the union has issues with merit-based teacher pay that takes student performance into account, even as the Obama administration is offering extra stimulus money to districts that embrace the idea.

When I asked Duffy how he could deny students a shot at that money at a time when budgets are being slashed, he insisted UTLA is not against accountability, peer and administrator assessment or even the use of test scores to evaluate teachers.

Then came the "but."

"We believe that in too many cases, test scores alone would be used."

Balderdash.

I showed Duffy an e-mail I'd been sent by an L.A. Unified teacher and former union rep who said there are perfectly fair practices being used in other districts to track student growth and teacher performance. At either a low-performing or high-performing school, a 5-point improvement on testing is a 5-point improvement.

Duffy wasn't impressed.

I should point out that UTLA isn't the only teachers union dragging its knuckles on this issue. But it's time for a change, and the spineless Democrats who dominate the state Legislature should quit counting all the cash piped into their pockets by the teacher lobby and start thinking about what's best for kids.

Until they do we're stuck with the status quo: shameful dropout rates, middle-class parents abandoning public education and bitter wars between districts and teacher unions.

Duffy told me he's happy to sit down with the district and talk reform, but he doesn't want it forced on him.

To which L.A. Unified Supt. Ray Cortines responded:

"They want to dictate it rather than have it be a consensus."

It's a schoolyard fight in which nobody wins, and the biggest losers are the students.

In UTLA's view, the seniority system is just fine, even though it prevents the district from putting teachers where they're most needed or most effective. And when layoffs come, Duffy doesn't see the need for using any criteria other than seniority.

"Have you read the contract?" he asked, telling me principals do indeed have the authority to transfer or discipline teachers.

Yeah, I told him.

"I dropped it and broke my foot."

That beast is 347 pages long, and that's one reason it takes years to discipline teachers. My colleague Jason Song reported in May that the district was spending roughly $10 million a year on 160 teachers and other staff who sat around doing nothing as they waited for misconduct charges to be resolved.

It's outrageous, and in Los Angeles and beyond, people -- including a lot of teachers -- have started rejecting that kind of nonsense.

The Citizen's Commission on Civil Rights has just released a report that blisters teacher unions for their "fierce opposition to reforms." Parent groups are rising up in Los Angeles and beyond, demanding accountability. Alternative schools are springing up everywhere, and L.A. Unified board member Yolie Flores Aguilar recently proposed allowing charter groups and other educators to bid for control of 50 new schools.

UTLA's position?

Thumbs down, of course.

"I oppose the privatization of public schools," said Duffy.

Oh, please.

My daughter is lucky enough to be in a great L.A. Unified elementary school right now. Her teacher last year was so amazing, I wish there were a merit system to pay her and the thousands of other great teachers in this district above scale -- a system that would also encourage teachers to take on bigger challenges in tough schools and pay them extra if they succeed.

But when my daughter hits sixth grade, I want more options than the so-so middle school she's slated to attend. I don't care whether they're charters or collaboratives, and I don't care who runs them. I only care about the quality of education and whether there's a system of accountability.

Time after time, UTLA is in the way rather than in the lead, and yet there's a lot about A.J. Duffy I like. He's passionate about public education, he smacks district officials around when the need arises, he loves teachers and he practically spits on himself when he starts talking about California's bottom-of-the-barrel national ranking on spending per pupil.

Come on, Duffy, do something constructive with all that energy. Instead of screaming about the district proposing a different course for 50 new schools, why not fight to get control of one of them -- or that cluster of 10 or 11 you were talking about -- and show us what you can do?

If you can deliver the kinds of schools you described for me, I'd sign up my daughter in a heartbeat.

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steve.lopez@latimes.com

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