Is Former Union Leader A.J. Duffy the Anti-Diane Ravitch?

Long-time charter school opponent and union head of the Los Angeles chapter of the California Teacher Association has had a remarkable change of heart now that he heads a charter school instead of a teacher’s union:

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….

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."

Of course, there’s no reason at all that unions should support easy tenure requirements or oppose reform to hiring and firing practices. So long as good teachers can be protected to a degree by the union and the union can help negotiate working conditions, wages, and so forth, that’s all that matters. Nothing is set in stone: not tenure, not last in first out, not slowly climbing wages that favor seniority, or policies that make it impossible to fire really bad teachers.

The fact is, unions can do a lot without sticking blindly to old ideas that may not work as well now as they used to. It just requires a change of vision. I don’t think you need to be pro or anti-teachers unions to realize that they can and should reform alongside the education system as a whole. As far as I’m concerned, protecting good teachers and getting rid of bad teachers aren’t mutually exclusive. Quite the contrary.

(h/t Nick Gillespie)

Erik Kain

Erik writes about video games at Forbes and politics at Mother Jones. He's the editor of The League though he hasn't written much here lately. He can be found occasionally composing 140 character cultural analysis on Twitter.


  1. The issue is the apparent union attitude that there’s no such thing as a bad teacher, only bad (students/parents/administrators/janitors/politicians/textbooks…)

  2. IMO, “a change of vision” is something that unions tend to do very poorly. Part of it is legal — the union has certain obligations to its members which it must legally fulfill in both negotiating and enforcing agreements. Part of it is mental ossification — when you spend a lot of your time worrying about whether “X” employee is working in “Y” classification or out of it, it becomes hard to imagine tearing down all of the classifications and starting over. And part of it is systemic — unions are, by their very nature, adversarial with management. These issues seem to magnify as the union grows in size, and the CTA is a very large union.

  3. Of course, there’s no reason at all that unions should support easy tenure requirements or oppose reform to hiring and firing practices.

    Isn’t there, though? Isn’t it the job of a union to protect all of its employees however it can rather than just the best and most productive ones?

    • The best and most productive members almost never need protection in the first place. Unions are there to protect the interests of the average members.

      Healthy unions aren’t particularly thrilled with the unproductive members in my experience; at some point, they know that they’ll need to argue that union labor is superior to non-union labor. When they start reflexively defending workers whose conduct seems indefensible, that’s a sign that mission creep has set in.

  4. If you think the people who run public schools would treat good teachers better than bad ones without a union, I have a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you. Administrators generally have little classroom experience and tend to jump on every fad that comes down the pike. Their idea of a good teacher is one who grades easy, is lax on discipline and accepts every passing fad as thoughtlessly as they do.

    Want to end tenure? Fine – then allow teachers to make hiring and firing decisions. Replace tenure with a partnership model. New teachers could have a probation period of 3 years. After that, the tenured teachers, or “partners,” could vote on whether to grant that new teacher “partnership status.” After that any teacher who slacks off or does a poor job could be removed by a 2/3’s vote of the other partner teachers. That’s how it’s done in law, medicine, accounting etc. Why not in education?

    Teachers don’t mind being held to high standards – they just don’t want to be arbitrarily judged by government bureaucrats who have no idea what they’re talking about.

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