Duncan: "Emergency action" needed now to avoid teacher layoffs

City, federal and union officials clash on the best way to lift the state’s charter school cap. They dispute the fairest way to lay off teachers. And they could barely agree on what school U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan should visit today.

But brought together for that visit, Duncan, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and teachers union president Michael Mulgrew could agree on one thing — the city needs federal dollars and it needs them soon.

Duncan was in town to promote his $4.3 billion Race to the Top grant competition and to call attention to the effect sweeping budget cuts could have on city schools. Duncan also took the opportunity to call on Congress to quickly pass a proposed $23 billion bill to avert teacher layoffs. A swift move on the bill is required, Duncan said, because districts like New York City are planning next year’s school budget now.

“The consequences of inaction are huge,” Duncan said. “We need emergency action and we need it now.”

The schools Duncan visited today were chosen to draw attention to two major policy changes city officials see as key to winning up to $700 million in Race to the Top funds. Bloomberg cited Kings Collegiate Charter School as the type of school the state’s charter cap is preventing the city from replicating. Cypress Hill’s P.S. 65 was selected as an example of a school whose young teachers would be hard hit by layoffs, the Daily News reported.

And P.S. 214 was added to Duncan’s itinerary at the last moment at the insistence of national teachers union president Randi Weingarten. Mulgrew told reporters the school was chosen because it is a high-needs school staffed by teachers with a range of experience levels and would lose both teachers and many special services in the case of harsh budget cuts.

Mulgrew also insisted, as he has done often, that the union opposes the State Senate’s version of the charter cap lift bill, not charter schools overall. “I’ve been very upfront that I support the lifting of a charter bill, with reforms,” he said.

And Duncan, when asked to assess the root of opposition to the charter school movement, denied that opposition exists.

“I don’t think there’s anybody not in support” of good charter schools, Duncan said. “I think there is honest disagreement about what we should do.”