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AFT: Obama Must Force Arne Duncan to 'Improve' or to Resign

The American Federation of Teachers passed a resolution Sunday calling on President Barack Obama to put U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on an "improvement plan," and demand his resignation if he doesn't change positions the union deems harmful. 

This is a very interesting development, notably because it's arguable whether this resolution is stronger than the National Education Association's similarly themed resolution, or weaker. 

On the one hand, unlike the NEA resolution, it stops short of calling for Duncan's immediate resignation. But on the other hand, the AFT makes it explicit that the buck for the education secretary ultimately stops with the person who appointed him—President Obama. 

Delegates noted Duncan's support for the Race to the Top competition, which gave incentives to states to tie teacher evaluations to student test scores; for the recent Vergara v. California equity-lawsuit ruling, which declared certain teacher protections unconstitutional in California; and for supporting planned teacher firings in Central Falls, R.I.,  as well as for saying that Hurricane Katrina's reshaping of New Orleans' school system was beneficial. 

"Arne Duncan did not do this alone; he did not appoint himself the secretary of education," said Dennis Kelly, the United Educators of San Francisco president, who successfully proposed the new language as an amendment to a larger resolution. "This amendment calls for us to put the onus on Obama. He made the choice. He must make the change." 

The full language is now here, and its message is clear: The AFT will afford Duncan the due process that the union alleges he wants to take away from teachers. The Duncan portion of the item says: 

RESOLVED, that the AFT today calls on the president to implement a secretary improvement plan that will be based upon standing up for public education, supporting teachers and all school workers, inspiring parents and the public to join us in creating the public schools we want and deserve, and leading with us in reclaiming the promise of public education. This improvement plan will include the following:

  • Enact the funding and equity recommendations of the Each and Every Child report issued by the congressionally chartered, bipartisan Equity Commission;
  • Work with us to change the [No Child Left Behind/Race to the Top] "test and punish" accountability system to a "support and improve" model; and
  • Promote rather than question the teachers and school support staff of America; and
  • RESOLVED, that if Secretary Duncan does not improve, and given that he has been treated fairly and his due process rights have been upheld, the secretary of education must resign.

There was a lot of debate about whether the AFT's main internal political party and voting bloc, Unity, would support an effort to call for Duncan's resignation. Some members, including those in the Chicago Teachers Union, wanted to join the NEA's call for that step. Others, including United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew, who leads the AFT's New York City affiliate, initially felt that calling for Duncan's resignation would look foolish, reactive, and "beneath" the union. 

But in the end, Mulgrew supported the new thrust of the motion.

"It sends the message that we do believe in due process and we do believe in an improvement plan," Mulgrew said. "It says what we believe in, and what the AFT is telling this country and Secretary Duncan is that you have a right to improve just like every educator in this country, but if you can't, you need to get out and stop hurting our kids." 

Randi Weingarten, the president of the AFT, released this statement after the vote: "This special order is basically saying, 'Enough is enough.' Teachers are evaluated and their future livelihoods are linked to that. And when they fall short, they should have a chance to improve. And that's what this special order represents. Make no mistake about it: There's a lot of hurt that has been expressed from the floor—the feeling that the secretary of education doesn't walk in the shoes of public educators or provide the support and resources necessary to ensure all children have a high-quality public education."

Dorie Nolt, Duncan's press secretary, sent along this comment:

"The transformation that educators and policymakers are leading to prepare all students for college and careers is incredibly difficult, and too often the adults fight about how to best help the kids. Secretary Duncan is hopeful that after AFT wraps up their meeting, he and the organization can continue to work together to prepare all students for college, careers, and life."

Delegates and commentators had different opinions about whether this resolution was a good or a poor strategic move. Witness the following tweets: 




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