Unions give charter school educators more freedom to give their best to students


by Brian Washington

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If you ask New Jersey educator Jaime Valente if charter schools should be held to the same standards as traditional public schools, he will answer, “Yes and no.”

“Yes, I believe that charter schools need to provide the same education that a student would receive as if he or she were in the traditional public school system,” said Valente, a music teacher at a charter school in Teaneck, New Jersey. “But I also believe that charter schools should meet those standards and regulations…and exceed them.”

Valente believes educators at his school, the Teaneck Community Charter School (TCCS), will now have more of an opportunity to do just that—thanks to an overwhelming vote earlier this year by school personnel to form a union.

The school’s forty-five teachers and education support professionals were so resolute in their decision to join the union, with more than 90-percent voting in favor of it, they were able to receive automatic recognition from the school’s board of trustees. The Teaneck Community Charter Education Association is affiliated with the New Jersey Education Association.

Prior to joining the union, TCCS Educators had no formal contract—just a one page employment agreement that left them at the mercy of the charter school’s board of trustees.  They ended up being blindsided by several incidents that impacted their personal lives and livelihoods. In one instance, the school took away employees’ family health benefits without notice or warning. Educators had to pay the entire cost out of their own pockets.

We spent so much time, before we had a union, worrying about what they were going to take from us. The amount of uncertainty led to a lot of teachers spending time focused on what could happen to their personal lives and their livelihoods. But with NJEA supporting us, we can put the focus where it belongs—on the students.

Valente also believes having a union will give him more freedom in the classroom and help him look at teaching the way he did when he first arrived at the charter school six years ago.

“One of the biggest things I was afforded was the ability to try something and essentially have it fail and that still be okay,” said Valente. “In other words, take a chance. Find what’s good and take that forward to the next project.

New Jersey educator Jaime Valente

“That’s what I like about teaching music—the creativity. I try to give that to my students. If you have an assignment and you think you can do it a different way and do it better…take a chance.”

The original intent of New Jersey’s charter school law was to create pioneering, publicly-funded, learning centers that are laboratories of innovation offering teaching methods and an educational experience not yet found at a traditional public school.

As of three years ago, there were about 53 charter schools operating in the state. That number now stands at 87—with only 9 charter schools establishing collective bargaining units.

However, not all charter schools are set-up the same way or operate in the same fashion. And many educators have complained that charter schools have been corrupted by so-called “education reformers” and private companies that neglect students’ and communities’ real educational needs.

Also, charter school educators have complained that these companies rely too heavily on high-stakes testing as a way to evaluate educators and student learning–a complaint that’s often made by educators who teach at public schools as well.

“How many times do educators end up teaching to the test because now it is involved in their evaluation and impacts their employment,” said Valente. “So now you have to pay attention to those things instead of giving students what they need to become well-rounded individuals.”

However, Valente hopes stories like the one playing out at TCCS, where educators banded together to create a stronger voice for students, will give lawmakers some valuable lessons about charter schools and doing what’s best for students.

“The biggest thing to learn is to give educators the freedom to teach. We are there because we are highly skilled individuals who have a passion for our craft and for our students. We need legislation that is not going to get in the way of that.”

Reader Comments

  1. Jaime,
    I read about you in the Indiana Edition neaToday (ista). I was really inspired that you were able to get your school to join the union. I have been teaching for a long time and have always been a member. I thought I would never need the unions services but I did this year. I was so glad that they were there for me. Being at the top of my career, I feel the superiors at my school want those at the top out of our careers due mainly to number crunching. I saw three go before me last year, not realizing that I would be the target this year. I am grateful that the union does protect our essential rights. I love teaching and always will and yes I agree we need to be able to teach our students what they need and not just for some test.

  2. No public monies for private education companies, union or not. Tax paying Americans fail the children of America when they are sent with public taxpayer money to private schools that have no legal obligation to teach them anything.

  3. Tuition tax credits, vouchers, charter schools are all part of the same attack on public education. Organizing for profit charter schools gives them legitimacy that they don’t deserve!!!

  4. I so wish LAUSD Private Charter Schools could be part of a union. I have seen many where teachers are required to work from 7am to 5pm with only 30 minutes off for lunch. (Then they have to grade papers, lesson plans, etc.) Maximum salary is $43,000 – they are working close to minimum wage! They ALL WANT TO LEAVE. (Apparently their Administrative positions make $$$$$$$)

    There are also minimum restrictions on the Private Charter Schools here – many refuse any students with Special Needs and kick out low performing students. Some of them do it when testing begins! Public Schools do that? We so need maximum publicity about this – UNIONS could make that happen.

    1. The Charter School movement, in my opinion, is an attempt by right wing ideologues to save money, and to save it by, among other things, paying teachers less. Does a light bulb go on?

  5. In many cases, charter schools gain funds by providing inferior salaries and benefits to their staff members. This can lead to shocking inefficiencies and waste in other areas of their spending. It is fundamentally unfair, and organization of collecting bargaining units to improve conditions for the staffs is very important and long overdue.

  6. The union will be a plus. It is time the teachers speak their needs if the student is helped by such action.

    In many respects I do not believe in the charter schools. I fear this experiment does weaken the public school system. Our focus should be to enhance, upgrade, foster, pay for and embrace the public school system we have.

  7. These charter school teachers are encountering the same concerns the public schools teachers are battling. Good teaching is not inspired by an insecure job environment. It is difficult not to harbor resentment though when the private companies chartering the schools get public funds to achieve their goals. If they do not have to adhere to the same regulations and mandates, they should not receive public funds. The private companies and education reformers, who want to play by different rules) need to invest their own funds to prove their worth.

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