State unions are typically united. When the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) speaks, it speaks for all of its local bargaining units. But a recent series of events that revolves around a charter school in Trenton has disrupted that unanimity.
The charter school that has fomented this atypical public display of discord is the International Academy of Trenton Charter School (IAT), now in its fourth year of operation with 700 students, grades K-5. After a state accountability evaluation, the Christie Administration’s DOE revoked the charter for “failure to provide a strong education program” and “failure to show sustained organizational stability.” If the DOE denies IAT’s appeal, this will be the school’s last year.
Indeed, IAT’s appeal to the state confirms these problems and notes additional ones, primarily issues with facilities (in NJ, charters are on their own but IAT just finished a $17 million renovation of the old Trenton Times building) and poor teacher morale. As a validation of its commitment to improving student outcomes and fostering a more collaborative culture, the Board decided to sever their agreement with its original operator, SABIS (to which it paid a stunning 14 percent of revenue). In addition, teachers voted to unionize (joining 17 other unionized NJ charters) and be represented by NJEA. The new union just completed negotiations on a contract that was unanimously ratified. NJEA has submitted a recommendation that the DOE extend the charter’s authorization.
You’d think the Trenton Education Association (TEA) would be thrilled for its brethren in this new labor union, as well as for the students at IAT. Not so much. Here’s TEA President Naomi Johnson-Lafleur in the Trentonian:
The opening and closing of charters in the City of Trenton is a racial and social justice issue, because real harm is being done to our students, local school system and our community. For more than two decades, the opening and closing of charter schools have resulted in gaps in learning, impeding the academic progress of black and brown children in urban districts like Trenton. That is why the Trenton Education Association is appalled and shocked that NJEA President Marie Blistan has decided to sign-on to an appeal of the closing of International Academy of Trenton Charter School in Trenton.
Despite the IAT’s support of its teaching staff’s decision to unionize; despite the hiring of Dominique Taylor, a talented turnaround specialist, to lead the school; despite the decision to reduce class sizes from 30 students to 21-24 students; despite the infusion of more money directly to classrooms, despite 2.5 percent annual teacher salary increases negotiated through the collective bargaining process and the implementation of merit bonuses; despite a new contract with the NJ Special Education Collaborative in order to boost learning for children with disabilities; despite the commitment of the IAT community to a “bold new path…to ensure the school achieves and succeeds its commitments to its students, families, and the Department [of Education];” despite the fact that IAT leaders and teachers have “unanimously agreed to a series of ground-breaking reforms in employee-employer relations,” TEA is mad as a hatter.
Sure, it’s all about the kids.
To be fair, I understand TEA’s confusion. As Lafleur points out, NJEA President Marie Blistan recently was interviewed on NJTV and said, “[charter schools] are not held accountable to quality continuum standards that we have in this state, and that’s very important because that covers the instruction that the children receive. It covers the resource they receive.”
Blistan is wrong, and the DOE’s decision to close the charter (pending the appeal) belies her statement. In fact, NJ charters are held to higher standards than traditional schools. One need only look at Trenton Public Schools which, while showing some signs of improvement, have long been plagued by the same infractions as IAT: failure to provide a strong education program and failure to show sustained organizational stability. At Trenton Central High School, according to the most recent DOE data, 19.6 percent of students meet or exceed expectations in English Language Arts and none do in math. (Probably not none, but if the number is less than 10 the DOE puts in an zero to protect privacy.) Don’t get me started with special education. (Okay, see here and here.)
How about “organizational stability”? Trenton Public Schools has had six superintendents since 2010.
In other words, if Trenton Public Schools were run by a charter operator it would have been closed long ago.
Yet Lafleur just can’t help herself: “We demand that Marie Blistan publicly reverse her decision to support the appeal of the closing of International Academy of Trenton Charter School.” And, “Blistan and the NJEA have even called for a moratorium on charter school growth, but this recent action highlights their double talk and utter hypocrisy.”
Is this really the hill that Lefleur and TEA want to die on? Trenton doesn’t have the robust charter sector of Newark and Camden but it’s not for lack of need or the desire of families for public school choice. (To wit, there are 126 children on AIT’s waiting list.) David Cantor, in this profile of Trenton’s educational inadequacies, notes the irony that “four minutes from the monumental government buildings where deals were formalized, 48 percent of students at Trenton Central High School–West were chronically absent. Several of the schools that scored among the lowest 5 percent in the state are within walking distance.” He quotes L.A. Parker, a Trentonian columnist, who says, “I think basically Trenton has a reputation that we’ve given up on education” and parent Yasmeen Douglas, who relates how her daugher’s second grade teacher left halfway through September and “she didn’t have a teacher the rest of the year until she went into the charter school in November. She didn’t have homework the whole year, she didn’t even get a progress report before she left.” Another parent, Janie Randolph, moved twenty-five miles away from Trenton to save her two boys. “I got them out before they were school age,” she told Cantor.
Will IAT win its appeal and retain its 700 students? Or will those children be forced back into the schools that Yasmeen Douglas rejected for her daughter? Charters should have a higher bar for student growth and other accountability measures than traditional publics; that’s the trade they make for for greater autonomy. But maybe, just maybe, local union ill will aside, the DOE might want to give the charter another year or two to prove its mettle.
After all, consider the alternative.