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Opinion

A.J. Duffy, education reformer?

On several occasions over the last few years, A.J. Duffy sat in a conference room with the editorial board of the Los Angeles Times and expounded on the evils of charter schools, the value of teachers union contracts that included pages and pages of extensive work rules, the importance of the teacher seniority system and the nefarious intentions of those who sought to streamline the firing of bad teachers.

So it came as a bit of a surprise when Duffy, who recently was termed out as president of United Teachers Los Angeles, announced that he wants to open charter schools that will make it harder for teachers to receive tenure, easier for them to lose it and allow schools to move much faster to fire ineffective instructors.

Was Duffy a closeted reformer all those years? Or do his views simply reflect those of whoever signs his paycheck?

Does it matter? As UTLA president, Duffy represented the interests of teachers. It would be nice if teachers unions were more progressive than UTLA, and many of them are, but it’s not their job to put the interests of children first; they exist to bargain for the best working conditions for teachers. That said, though Duffy’s belligerent style never softened during his UTLA tenure, his stances did. He came to support pilot schools, which are public schools that operate with a “thin contract” that doesn’t micromanage teachers’ responsibilities. He voiced a willingness to compromise on once-ironclad protections for teachers. By the end of his term, some hard-core UTLA members actually saw him as a turncoat.

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No matter what motivates Duffy these days, his personal shift reflects a sea change in educational policy. Existing tenure and seniority rules have become increasingly unacceptable to administrators, politicians, parents and the public. The stultifying regulations in many teacher contracts are seen as a barrier to academic progress.

Last year, as UTLA president, Duffy wouldn’t sit down at the table with Los Angeles Unified School District administrators and representatives of groups that had sued the district. The groups, which included the American Civil Liberties Union, rightly claimed that poorer students from low-performing schools were being deprived of their educational rights when their teachers — generally those with the least seniority in the district — were laid off. Those layoffs led to major disruptions in improvement programs. The two sides went ahead without UTLA, agreeing on new protections for those students in a settlement that the union decried. Reform is moving ahead, albeit unsteadily, with or without the blessing of unions; Duffy clearly learned that it’s smarter to stay at the table.


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