Teachers’ Union Takes Tough Stance on New Charters

John Mooney | July 16, 2012 | Education
Proposed online charter schools could lead to legal action, NJEA says

The relationship between the New Jersey Education Association and charter schools has been a checkered one.

In the early 1990s, the powerful teachers union fought against the state’s charter school law before ultimately signing on. Since then, it has openly said it supports charters — and has organized unions in a dozen of them — while raising protests about some aspects of the alternative schools.

Now, the union is again mixing it up, as the Christie administration is about to announce the latest round of final charters for schools opening this fall, including possibly New Jersey’s first all-online schools.

Last week, the union led a group of eight prominent education organizations in urging acting Education Commissioner Chris Cerf to not give final charters for two proposed online schools to open in September, even threatening legal action if he does.

Meanwhile, the statewide union is also starting what its leadership described as an aggressive campaign to reach out to existing charter school teachers to help them organize, if they so choose. Eleven of the state’s 80 existing charter schools now have teachers’ unions, according to the state’s charter schools association.

“Our position with charter schools is we know they exist and we’ll work with them,” said Vince Giordano, the NJEA’s executive director.

“There is no great track record with charter schools in this state; while some do better than district schools, others do a lot worse,” Giordano said this weekend. “But generally speaking, we know they exist and we’ll work with them.”

The union’s stepped-up presence comes at a time when charter schools in New Jersey are seeing both unprecedented expansion and heightened scrutiny.

This week could prove especially critical, since the state Department of Education is in final review of more than 30 schools that have won preliminary approval but await their final charters if they are to open this fall.

Cerf wrote in an op-ed published on NJ Spotlight today that as the state sits on the verge of these decisions, critics have wrongfully maligned charter schools on a number of fronts and the public instead needs to view them as a valuable option for families.

“Education is not a zero sum game,” he wrote. “We as a state need to move beyond the belief that if one child has a better option, another will be worse off. Charter schools are not the only solution for New Jersey students, but they are one solution as part of a comprehensive education reform agenda that Governor Christie and I are pursuing to invest in and improve all public schools in New Jersey.”

He did not mention the prospect of online charters, which have drawn by far the most attention as New Jersey’s first foray into the world of virtual schooling. And it is one place where the NJEA has stepped in, with Giordano saying the union decided that public statements and testimony wasn’t enough.

He said discussions started in the past month for the various groups to band together to formally protest the online schools. The main protest is over the state’s authority to even permit them, he said, with no mention of online schools in the 1995 law and some provisions that appear to block them.

In the letter sent to Cerf, the groups also raised a number of policy questions as well, including those addressing how charter schools will be held accountable for everything from certified teachers to student attendance.

When asked this weekend what will happen if Cerf approves one or both online charters, Giordano said legal action would be seriously considered.

“At that point we would be speaking with attorneys and possibly taking some injunctive action,” he said. “I’m not looking to start a fight, but somebody has to take a stand.”

In the same interview, Giordano said it was time for the administration and Legislature to take a hard look at the status of charter schools in general across the state and ways to improve, if not replace, the state’s charter school law.

“I do think we need to slow down at take a good accounting of where we are,” he said. “This is a good point for the state not to be hell-bent on expanding, and catch our breath and see what’s working or not.”

However, that won’t prevent the NJEA from looking for new members in the charter schools, he said, a venue that has historically been a tough sell for the union with its younger and more transient teachers.

“We’ll be moving very aggressively in organizing,” he said. “We’ll reach out, try to meet with those who want to. We’re pretty saturated in the [district] public schools, and this will be an opportunity to organize new members and help them gain better living standards and working conditions.”