United Teachers Los Angeles President Warren Fletcher, left, replaced… (Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles…)
I was waiting for A.J. Duffy at the Farmer's Market Tuesday afternoon when I spotted someone who looked somewhat like him.
But if this was the ex-president of United Teachers Los Angeles, he was out of uniform. Instead of the nice threads and two-tone Guys 'n' Dolls shoes he wore as a union boss, he was dressed like a tourist.
Blue shorts past his knees. White T-shirt. Sneakers. And a Yankees cap.
Then again, Duffy recently switched teams, so why not uniforms? In fact, he pulled off a flip so incredible, he could have joined Cirque du Soleil. The brash, charter school-bashing union boss has become director of — can you believe it? — a charter school company.
Could it be that Duffy has an identical twin we didn't know about?
Or that he's been hypnotized?
Duffy running a charter?
That would be like Vin Scully dumping the Dodgers to announce Angels games.
As I waited for Duffy to arrive, I'd been talking to a group of guys near Bob's Donuts about my lunch date with Duffy. I wondered if they knew who he was and had heard about his remarkable act of reinvention. One of the guys called him a hypocrite, and when Duffy walked over, the guy didn't back down, asking Duffy to explain himself.
"Well, there are reasons for it," Duffy told him.
He's been saying that a lot, lately: There are reasons for it. But not everyone is buying the reasons.
Over lunch, Duffy told me he's been called a turncoat, has fielded calls from bewildered former colleagues and has answered complaints from ticked-off teachers.
For six years as UTLA's public face, Duffy preached the same sermon over and over.
It went something like this:
Charter schools weren't just unproven, they were destructive forces that siphoned away teachers, money and students from schools that would become further disadvantaged. And teachers desperately need the protection afforded them by tenure, because there is no proven system for evaluating them and determining which teachers should be forced out.
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa called the union under Duffy's leadership "one unwavering roadblock to reform."
Duffy is executive director of Apple Academy Charter Public Schools, which hopes to get approval to run at least three and up to six campuses that would open next year.
My colleague Howard Blume reported last week that "the longtime anti-charter crusader now 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 protections."
Duffy, who did little as union boss to challenge a shockingly dysfunctional system in which it takes several years to fire ineffective teachers, now says teachers should be given support to improve but that if they don't, dismissals should be handled within 20 days.
So what gives?
Yes, Duffy admitted, it must seem as if "Earth has shifted on its axis."
"But at the end of the day, Apple Academy is about creating … a quality education for the kids we serve, and we're committed to putting teachers in the center of decision-making and providing the tools they need to be successful."
OK, I'm all for that.
And in fact, Ben Austin, a parent advocate and champion of school reform who used to regularly butt heads with Duffy, told me the ex-union boss' new spiel is refreshingly on target. He added that Duffy has always been a guy who, at least in private, was interested in finding common ground, but that often got lost in the harsher rhetoric of public discourse.
Still, I have to wonder why Duffy wasn't fighting for some of the reforms he now embraces during the last six years, when he could have accomplished something.
His job, Duffy told me over lunch, was to represent the policies of two UTLA governing bodies, even if at times he held different positions.
"I know I must sound like a thousand other politicians," said Duffy, who wasn't far off. "And the fact is, that's what the job was. I was a politician."
Duffy argued that he hasn't gone as far from his roots as it seems and that he still believes in unionizing charter schools, including the ones he hopes to end up running. The nation's teacher unions are in big trouble, he said, if they don't go after the growing number of charter school teachers.
A primary motive for joining Apple Academy, he said, was that he wants to hire some of the 74 unionized teachers who lost their jobs when another charter operation, the Crescendo Schools, was shut down recently. You see, he said, he's still a union guy all the way.
Or is he? I heard recently that the Apple Academy may apply for funding from a philanthropic arm of the folks who own Wal-mart, the anti-union retailer.
Duffy said he didn't know much about the funding aspect of the enterprise.
But would the former union boss still take the job if his check were written in part by an anti-union operation?
Duffy said he wouldn't lose sleep over that, but he would lose sleep over not getting the chance to hire back the Crescendo teachers and offer kids the best possible education they can get.
Same guy, different team.
Unless that was Duffy's twin who showed up for lunch.