Star-Ledger Op-Ed: N.J. charter schools beneficial for teachers and students alike

By Jomayra I. Torres

Public charter schools have been making headlines in New Jersey for years. As policymakers debate equitable funding and the expanding role of charter schools in the state, teachers like me are on the frontlines of this pioneering movement.

I believe it's critical that teacher voices be heard when debating the future of charter schools in New Jersey.

I've been a teacher for four years. While I wasn't always sure what type of school I'd end up in, I've spent my career at BelovED Community Charter School, an independent, high-performing public charter school in Jersey City. It is in this innovative environment that I've been able to experience the flexibility and autonomy that I've always envisioned for my career.

Despite serving millions of students and employing thousands of educators across the country, these laboratory-like schools are still misunderstood in many communities. Independent charter schools are unique public schools offered bureaucratic freedom in exchange for real results. Just like traditional public schools, they don't charge tuition, are publicly funded and open to anyone who applies—including students with special needs.

Free from union contracts, my charter school has the freedom to adjust the school day, choose new and exciting curriculum resources and develop strong models for learning. Teachers like me are treated as equal partners with valuable experience and ideas. Personally, I feel empowered by school leadership to teach in a way that is unique to every student in my classroom.

As the oldest of eight kids born and raised in Jersey City, I'm the only member of my family who graduated high school, college and now has a career in education. I know from experience that great teachers make the difference for kids.

And I know that teachers across the state understand the transcending power of a high quality education. The vast majority of my colleagues enter the profession with dreams of changing lives and affecting communities. Nowhere is this dream more alive than in public charter schools designed to serve the New Jersey's most high-need students.

The truth is educators on the front lines know a one-size-fits-all system does little to address the unique needs of all our students. Students learn differently, just as teachers have different teaching styles. In adapting to the system of choice across the country, professional educators are realizing that advances like charter schools are not only meeting the needs of students, but also providing professional opportunities to staff. We must see this progression across New Jersey.

While the status quo would have you believe educators are not in favor of choice initiatives like public charter schools, thousands of teachers support this new direction and are working in schools of choice every day.

According to a membership survey by the Association of American Educators, the largest national non-union educators' organization, teachers everywhere are open to policies that advance choice and innovation. As a member, I couldn't be more proud that my colleagues are embracing the wave of the future of education.

Specifically, an overwhelming 97 percent of AAE members support charter schools as options for both students and teachers alike. Clearly there is an understanding among educators that options for students are beneficial and that educators, in turn, can also reap rewards.

My message to stakeholders in New Jersey is simple. Charter schools are nothing to fear. My own son attends my school and is making huge gains. As a public charter school teacher, I'm directly benefitting from choices in education and I'm grateful. I wake up knowing that I am in an environment that challenges me professionally and allows me to work with kids that need me most.

Looking forward, I hope to see policymakers recognize the power of public charter schools in New Jersey by closing the funding gap and creating a comprehensive and fair charter law in our state. Students–and teachers–deserve the opportunity to succeed.

Jomayra I. Torres is the lead 1st grade teacher at BelovED Community Charter School in Jersey City, New Jersey. An AAE member, she was the recipient of the 2014 Teacher of the Year award from the New Jersey Charter Schools Association.