A.J. Duffy, who headed a teachers union that has long fought against charter schools, now is starting his own. And some of his ideas are going to trouble some educators and his friends in the labor movement.
The longtime anti-charter crusader wants to make it harder for teachers to earn tenure protections and wants to lengthen that process. He even wants to require teachers to demonstrate that they remain effective in the classroom if they want to keep their tenure protections.
And if a tenured teacher becomes ineffective, he wants to streamline dismissals. The process now in place can stretch out for several years, even with substantial evidence of gross misconduct. Some union leaders, notably Duffy, have defended this “due process” as a necessary protection against administrative abuses.
“I would make it 10 days if I could,” Duffy now says of the length of the dismissal process.
These are not viewpoints ever advanced, condoned or accepted by United Teachers Los Angeles, which represents teachers and other professionals in the nation’s second-largest school system. Duffy headed that union for six years, until term limits forced him from office in July.
Duffy will have a unionized school, preferably with his former union, but not at the expense of sacrificing his vision for how a school should operate, he said.
Skeptics, who criticized Duffy’s management of the union, now question his qualifications to run schools. Charter school advocates responded cautiously, but were generally positive.
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa had called the union under Duffy “one unwavering roadblock to reform.” The mayor had no comment, but Patrick Sinclair, a spokesman for a group of schools overseen by the mayor, said, “We’re glad he’s pursuing a lot of the changes and reforms that we and the mayor would like to see.”
Charter schools are free public schools that are operated independently from the local school district. They are not subject to some rules that govern traditional schools, and most are non-union.
Duffy, 67, will move this week from a founding board member to executive director of Apple Academy Charter Public Schools. He plans to submit a charter proposal for review and possible approval by the L.A. Unified School District in the next few weeks. He hopes to open one or more schools in the South L.A. area by the fall of 2012 at the latest.
Among those on his board: Former school board President Caprice Young, who went on to head the California Charter Schools Assn., after the teachers union mounted a successful campaign to oust her in 2003. Duffy was a union activist then; he became president in 2005, joining an anti-charter union leadership.
“If you were to put it in evangelical terms, this is about the best conversion I could hope for,” said Young, who now heads a nonprofit teacher-recruiting effort. “I hesitate to describe it that way, because this is a collaboration. I’ve been willing to let go of my preconceived notions about someone with whom I’ve fought in the past.”
The Apple Academy board also includes Ref Rodriguez, co-founder of the Partnerships to Uplift Communities, a large and non-union local charter group.
Even while Duffy battled charter schools, he also wanted to unionize them. Some other UTLA leaders opposed this goal; they didn’t want to sanction the existence of charters in any way. L.A. Unified has more charters than any other school system, 197, and two joined UTLA over the last six years. (Some traditional schools converted to charters and remained with the union.)
As union president, Duffy railed against the lower percentage of special education students and students learning English who were served by charters — an issue that still troubles him. And he fought to keep charter schools off L.A. Unified campuses. Every time a charter school opened, it siphoned off union teaching positions.
At the same time, he argued for charter school-like freedoms at traditional schools, running up against the L.A. Unified bureaucracy and, frequently, his own union’s reluctance to risk weakening contract protections.
As his term in office ended, Duffy had a right to return to the classroom — he had been a teacher and a dean. But he hoped for a larger role. That chance came through an unexpected vehicle: a charter-school cheating scandal.
In 2010, when teachers at Crescendo charter schools reported that they were ordered to cheat on state standardized tests, they quickly joined UTLA for protection against retaliation. Duffy took up their cause and argued that the schools should remain open.
L.A. Unified ultimately voted to close Crescendo in July. Now, Duffy hopes to hire Crescendo teachers and attract former students.
Duffy said his new role gives him another crack at a longtime union goal: freeing teachers from what he regards as an oppressive district bureaucracy.
And he said his teachers would receive a fair, if expedited, dismissal process. Struggling teachers would receive help before they were fired, and experienced teachers would have to support the dismissal.
Former UTLA President John Perez said he wished Duffy well but said he could not endorse Duffy’s new direction. Charter school operators, he said, are laying the groundwork for using public-school funds at private schools through so-called vouchers.
They’re also opening the door for corporations “who want to destroy public education by getting their hands on the hundreds of billions of dollars we spend on public education in this country,” Perez said.