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Arne Duncan. Photo: AFP/Getty Images/Saul Loeb Arne Duncan. Photo: AFP/Getty Images/Saul Loeb  

Democratic Fratricide Follows California Teachers Union Ruling

Teachers unions, long a core Democratic constituency, are in open revolt over the muted reaction of Democratic leaders to a recent court decision gutting California’s teacher tenure and seniority laws.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has angered teachers by failing to decisively take their side following California Judge Rolf Treu’s ruling this week. The Vegara v. California decision declared that certain components of California’s labor laws for teachers produced unconstitutional educational outcomes. Among the statutes stricken down was one mandating that California schools follow a “Last In, First Out” policy for layoffs and another requiring that schools make decisions on teacher tenure after less than two years on the job.

In a statement issued shortly after the ruling, Duncan described the ruling as an “opportunity” for the state to  ”build a new framework for the teaching profession that protects students’ rights to equal educational opportunities while providing teachers the support, respect and rewarding careers they deserve.” While he did not exactly endorse the decision, he was also not critical of it and did not denounce it as overreach.

In an interview with CNNMoney on Thursday, Duncan clarified that he still supports tenure and other protections for teachers, but found California’s laws excessive.

“I absolutely believe in tenure, I believe in due process,” Duncan said, “But having said that, having teachers get tenure, as they were there, in 18 months or two years, where it’s not a meaningful bar, that doesn’t make sense to me.”

He also added more criticism onto laws that make it take years and thousands of dollars to remove grossly ineffective teachers in California, if they can even be removed at all.

“We know where those teachers typically end up, unfortunately, and that’s in the most needy communities,” Duncan said.

Duncan’s lack of solidarity with teachers has left the profession’s national unions irate, feeling abandoned by their own party’s number one education representative.

In an open letter to Duncan published Thursday night, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten took the secretary to task for his perceived betrayal.

“This week,” the letter begins, “we needed your leadership; to demonstrate that teacher and student interests are aligned; that we must press—60 years after Brown v. Board—for educational equity; that it takes more than a focus on teachers to improve public education.

“But instead, you added to the polarization. And teachers across the country are wondering why the secretary of education thinks that stripping them of their due process is the way to help all children succeed.”

Blaming teachers for often cataclysmic state of U.S. schools, Weingarten says, completely misses the real problems hindering education, namely the need for more teacher support and more money.

“We must hone in on poverty, underfunding and other factors that went unaddressed in the Vergara decision,” she says near the end.

Weingarten’s letter doesn’t entirely burn the bridge, however, in perhaps a tacit realization that the Democratic Party is still the best ally teachers unions have. The letter concludes with an appeal: “We need your leadership, Secretary Duncan.”

Weingarten’s letter highlights a growing rift between Democrats who remain staunch defenders of traditional union privileges and those who view them as an obstacle to reforming dysfunctional schools. California’s recent state superintendent race has showcased this divide further, with pro-union Tom Torlakson being sent to a runoff against aggressive reformer Marshall Tuck. While both are Democrats, the campaign has become very hard-fought and expensive  as teachers are pulling out all the stops to keep Torlakson in office.

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