Equity & Diversity Opinion

Why Charter School Teachers Should Care About the Janus Decision

By Ariel Sacks — June 29, 2018 5 min read
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I’m upset and worried about the Janus decision. And I don’t even currently belong to a union. I’ve taught in the New York City Department of Education, one non-unionized NYC public charter school, and one unionized conversion charter that stayed in the UFT. After a year away from teaching, I am now heading to a non-unionized NYC charter again that participates in the NYC Teacher’s Retirement System (pension program). Let me tell you why the strength of the union is important to me, partly on principle, but even as it relates to my own situation.

My journey over the last 14 years has allowed me to work in a number of different schools. Along the way, I’ve also interviewed at a number of New York City charter schools, looking for the “perfect position” (I have gained some perspective on this as well, which I’ll have to save for a different post). I learned a lot by doing that. I’ve always believed teachers should be compensated on par with doctors and lawyers for the essential, complex, highly skilled work we do. Given that, I was attracted by the promise of higher salary that many charter schools offer. Some simply pay a certain percent higher than the DOE salary scale and go up incrementally from there. Others start much higher and just stay there. Some start comparable to the DOE and offer a career ladder with promotions for those who meet certain criteria and take on leadership roles. There are a range of combinations.

Many of these schools have recruiters whose job it is to entice me, or you. It can be quite an interesting experience, especially compared to the no-frills hiring/transfer process in most DOE schools.

But at the end of the day, here’s the deal:

When I added up the extra hours, school days, and summer PD days in most charter school calendars, the additional health care premiums (especially if you want to put your family on your health care), the variety of 401k matching programs or the complete lack thereof at various schools, alongside the salary at each of the charter options I explored, there was NOT ONE that provided a better financial deal than the DOE does (which is where I started out). The dollars and cents did not actually add up to any kind of a raise. More often, it was a pay cut dressed up with a slightly higher salary number.

That doesn’t mean it’s never worth it to work in a charter school--you just have to look beyond that salary quote and understand the deal you are getting. And don’t harbor the illusion that it’s generous just because the salary looks higher. As long as you know that, you can make an informed choice.

So what about Janus? The Supreme Court’s decision in Janus Vs. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees means that now, New York City public school teachers, for example, can opt out of being in the union. Right now, if we teach in the DOE, we are automatically UFT members: we pay dues which come right out of our paychecks, and we reap all of the benefits and protections the union provides. These include the contracts they negotiate, including work hours and scheduling restrictions (not teaching four periods in a row and having a duty free lunch, for example), health care, pension, as well as a process and representation in the case of contract violations or disciplinary issues.

If teachers can choose whether or not to be members (and pay dues), then the funding of the union is significantly impacted. Its overall responsibility can’t change very much--the UFT would still be negotiating contracts that would apply to all DOE teachers, not just members. Over time, if enough teachers decide not buy in to the union, it would lose the strength that it leverages when advocating for issues like teacher pay, hours, and benefits. This is a very real possibility.

Some people warn that there will be forces trying to entice teachers out of the union--that could even include an increased salary for those who opt out. That special salary would continue until enough people opted out, that the union would be too weak to effectively negotiate--at which point, anything could happen. That special salary could be cut in half, for example. Or pension could go away forever. The forces that want to undermine or destroy the teachers’ unions in no way have teachers’ interests and wellbeing in mind.

Why does this matter for charter school teachers who are not in unionized schools? Because the mashups of salaries and benefits I encountered at charter schools were all similar in one way: they attempted to seem competitive with the package offered by the DOE. It’s not by coincedence that most of them have longer school days, but higher salaries, for example. Likewise, when the UFT and New York City finally reached a new contract agreement in 2014 which included a significant raise, charter schools that had used the DOE salary scale as a reference point increased their salaries as well to attract and retain their teachers.

The local union’s ability to negotiate a decent deal on behalf of teachers pretty directly pressures charters to fall in line and stay competitive. If that power goes away, charter school teachers who have benefited from this unspoken relationship are likely to feel the difference as much or more than their district counterparts.

Teacher’s unions have suffered from low popularity in recent decades--from the outside, they’ve been attacked by the media and politicians, and on the inside, waning member participation and a sense that the union is often too large and bureaucratic to be sufficiently accountable to its teachers has dampened their movement. But with the Janus decision, district AND charter school teachers would be wise to figure out how to support the unions.

Who knows, maybe we could spur a new era for teachers’ unions that not only protects our salaries, working conditions and benefits, but includes active dialogue and movement toward a visionary future of our profession. I sincerely hope--for our students, our selves, and our country--that future will see teachers as a highly compensated professionals rather than a revolving door of low-paid, semi-skilled, short term, disadvantaged wage earners. If it ever wasn’t clear, it is now: that’s a pipedream unless we’re ready to fight.

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