First Week of November? Time for My Annual Rant Against the NJEA Convention

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-two 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!"

Now, the convention looks great (Dana Goldstein is a keynoter) but the scheduling is, well, not.  NJEA is, in fact, 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.

The New York State Union of Teachers, for example, eschews an annual meeting that interrupts instruction. Why? Because the American Federation of Teachers, NYSUT’s parents, says that "professional development should be job-embedded and site specific.” In other words. the best professional enrichment for teachers occurs in schools.

Meanwhile back in the unenlightened Jerz, this first week in November is an academic wash.  (In the thank-goodness-for-small-favors department, you could live in TinTon Falls, where teachers there remembered a little-known law that allows staff to take off Election Day and, to protest an unresolved contract, did just that.) This month's instructional capacity will also take hits from teacher-parent conferences and the four-day Thanksgiving break.

So, my annual plea: can we rethink this obsolete all-teachers-go-to-Atlantic City during the school year thing? (Actually, the majority stay home, but that’s another matter.) 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 regains some momentum. Students reap the bounty of fewer calendar disruptions. School districts compensate teachers and other staff members for additional work time.

Win, win, right? Even in Atlantic City, you can't beat those odds.

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