Posted In: Canonical Categories, Charter Schools, New Jersey, Workers' Rights
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.
“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.”