Why do we let New Jersey teachers cut class?

 New Jersey Education Association Teachers Convention in Atlantic City, N.J. (AP FILE Photo/Mary Godleski)

New Jersey Education Association Teachers Convention in Atlantic City, N.J. (AP FILE Photo/Mary Godleski)

If you’re the parent of a New Jersey public school student, then this week marks your annual quality time bonus.  As all parents know, schools close down the first Thursday and Friday in November so that, as inscribed in N.J. statute 18A:31-2, any “full-time teaching staff member of any board of education of any local school district or regional school district or of a county vocational school or any secretary, or office clerk” can “attend the annual convention of the New Jersey Education Association” and “receive his whole salary for the days of actual attendance upon the sessions of such convention.”

It’s a tradition, dating back ninety-one years ago, vintage 1923, when the State Legislature gifted the union with a two-day holiday for professional development, networking, and camaraderie. Mothers were home anyway, right? A century later NJEA’s website still exults, “Discover, Uncover, Enjoy!” and “You paid your dues. You get into Convention!”

Unlike a fine wine, however, the annual convention’s value hasn’t appreciated with age. Perhaps it’s time for a re-evaluation.

Let’s start with some national context. NJEA is one of only three state teacher labor unions in the country to hold its annual convention during the school year. Minnesota takes two days during the school year, just like NJEA. Utah also holds its convention during the school year but tries to align it with the state’s annual fall break, and teachers must use personal days to receive compensation. No other NJEA or AFT affiliate in the country holds state conventions during the school year. Instead, statewide meetings, if they exist at all, occur during the summer or on weekends.

And, mostly, they don’t exist. Educational researchers point to the de minimis value of sharing resources and offering professional development opportunities at a centralized site, i.e., everyone in the state traveling to Atlantic City. The American Federation of Teachers, sister union to NJEA’s parent NEA, says that “professional development should be job-embedded and site specific.”

Vendors, of course (700 this week in the Atlantic City Convention Center including Apple, Verizon, SeaWorld, and Bravo Tours), love the captive audience… But the consensus around the country is that teachers and other staff don’t professionally benefit from this non-job-imbedded and non-site-specific annual meeting.

Anyway, the majority of members don’t attend. NJEA’s own numbers, probably a bit inflated, put last year’s attendance at 30,000 and that number may include NJEA staffers and other functionaries. But let’s be generous and say that 15 percent of the total membership of 196,000 attends the annual convention.  This means that 85 percent of NJEA members stay home.

To be fair, the convention program looks great, rich with offerings to make any education maven drool. But over the last few years the convention has taken a distinctly political turn. All attendees this week receive an NJEA badge that proclaims “TESTS DON’T TEACH,” a nod to the current anti-testing fervor. The keynote speaker, Pasi Stahlberg, is going to explain how “countries’ education policies and practices are on the wrong track.” A new militant wing of NEA that opposes accountability, tenure reform, and school choice will have an active presence. Earlier this week a new militant arm of the union called the Badass Teachers Association (BAT), tweeted, “BATS are taking over #NJEAConv. See you there!” and “This means war,” and “BATS are swarming. Meet us at Booth #1450!” 

So maybe it’s time to drain this old bottle and decant a more recent vintage that has more value for students and school staff. Educators of all stripes chant the benefits of extended school calendars for children; New Jersey mandates an annual school calendar of at least 180 days. What if it were 182? Imagine this: NJEA voluntarily forgoes its autumnal convention. (Yes, it’s written in statute but legislators would happily repeal it with the union’s blessing.) The month of November, instructionally limping from the triple-whammy of NJEA convention holiday, teacher-parent conferences, and Thanksgiving break, regains some momentum. Students reap the bounty of fewer calendar disruptions. School districts compensate teachers and other staff members for additional work time.

It would be a perfect year.

______________________________________

Laura Waters is vice president of the Lawrence Township School Board in Mercer County. She also writes about New Jersey’s public education on her blog NJ Left Behind. Follow her on Twitter @NJLeftbehind.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.