A national teachers convention on Sunday called for President Barack Obama to put Education Secretary Arne Duncan on an “improvement plan” as a prelude to replacing him.
The action was taken by the American Federation of Teachers, which is meeting in Los Angeles. It represents another marker in the long-running erosion of relations between organizations that represent instructors and the Democratic president they helped to elect twice.
The union stopped short of calling for Duncan’s immediate departure – as had the National Education Association, at its meeting in Denver earlier this month. But the lesser step was no indication of greater regard.
Nate Goldbaum, a Chicago delegate, called Duncan “the man who is taking away all that we hold dear.”
He proposed calling for Duncan’s outright resignation, an idea that attracted strong support until an alternate proposal emerged from Dennis Kelly, president of United Educators of San Francisco.
Kelly offered the improvement-plan language to echo the union’s insistence on protecting due process for teachers who face discipline or dismissal. Union leaders said these rights are under assault.
More broadly, union activists and their allies have accused Duncan of allying with anti-union forces seeking to “privatize” public schools and pave the way for corporate interests to profit from public funding devoted to education.
Duncan’s department has pressured states and school districts to limit teacher job protections and to use student standardized test scores as a substantial portion of a teacher’s evaluation. The goal, Duncan has said, is to develop a higher-quality workforce by helping teachers improve while also making it easier to remove those who don’t.
Duncan has consistently defended himself as a friend of teachers, noting that he supports some form of tenure, while also wanting to make these job protections more difficult to achieve. Duncan applauded a June court ruling that struck down California’s tenure rules and some other teacher job protections.
The anger of the rank and file had the potential to put AFT President Randi Weingarten in an awkward position. She met with Duncan last week and has stressed keeping open channels of communication.
She called putting Duncan on an improvement plan a “constructive approach” with the appropriate symbolism. At the same time, the passion of delegates demonstrated the “sense of betrayal” many felt about Duncan and the administration, she said.