High Tech High’s North County campus / Photo by Ryan Gardiner
High Tech High’s North County campus / Photo by Ryan Gardiner

When I was a fifth grader, my parents presented me with a question that didn’t seem all that significant at the time, but fundamentally altered my life from that point on. They said a new school opened up in San Marcos that was project-based, hands-on and innovative. I had been admitted to the new school and had to choose between sticking with my friends and going to my district middle school or trying something different. While I would like to think I chose the latter out of self-reflection and an aversion to the status quo, I think the decision was more about the promise of having less homework and more field trips.

Well over a decade later, I credit that decision with so much of the success I attained in college and my early professional career.

The school I chose to attend was a newly opened San Marcos campus of the High Tech High charter school network. The same network is currently considering unionizing under the California Teachers Association.

When I was a fresh-eyed middle-schooler, I didn’t fully grasp how unique my experience was. I was learning from teachers who didn’t teach like anybody else, in a school environment that didn’t feel like any other school I had been in.

High Tech High has grown to be one of the largest charter networks in the county. The project-based model it pioneered has been replicated across the country, and is held as a gold standard for what innovative education can look like.

For all the good that High Tech High has done for me and so many other students, I worry that is all at risk as a group of teachers in the charter network have decided to push for unionization under the California Teachers Association.

I empathize with the teachers at High Tech High, and other local charters, that want stronger employment protections and representation in administrative decision-making. I come from a family of educators. I have seen firsthand how dedicated most teachers are to lifting their students to new levels of success. Yet I have also seen firsthand the disconnect between those skilled teachers and the professional operatives who represent them in the halls of the Legislature and the daises of school boards.

Nowhere is that disconnect more clear than at High Tech High.

The California Teachers Association has worked to erase charter schools as a piece of the educational puzzle that makes up our state’s education system. In 2019, the union put forth a draconian measure that would place a moratorium on charter school growth. This was at the same time that High Tech High was expanding its offerings by opening campuses in Clairemont Mesa.

During this COVID-19 pandemic, many charter schools were well equipped to handle the crisis because they had been offering and perfecting distance learning for decades. Where was the California Teachers Association? Busy at work ensuring that charter schools could not increase their enrollment during COVID-19 to offer their services to students struggling in virtual district public schools.

Even in the midst of this unionization drive at High Tech High, the California Assembly is moving forward with a bill strongly supported by teachers unions that has the potential to dramatically reduce school funding for charters such as High Tech High.

The California Teachers Association is vehement in its opposition to charters because the very principles that have made so many charters successful are diametrically opposed to the ideas promulgated by the union. As a student at High Tech High, I benefited immensely from teachers who, on paper, had little experience in the classroom. Instead, they arrived to the school with a wealth of professional experience from their own careers, allowing for a more real-world teaching perspective. Union principles on tenure and credentialing make that sort of professional-academic cross-pollination untenable. Charters also pull students from wherever they may live. They don’t follow the segregationist policy of  ZIP code attendance that teachers unions have fought to protect.

It is entirely clear that the California Teachers Association does not represent the best interests of the innovative, passionate and dedicated teachers at local charters. I hope teachers at High Tech High realize this and rethink their plans to join the very organization that has worked to strip students of the option to attend their school of choice — which in many cases, like it was my own, is the choice to attend High Tech High.

Ryan Gardiner has served as a policy and political adviser to numerous school board members across San Diego County. Gardiner previously worked on education policy in the California Senate and is a 2016 graduate of High Tech High North County. He can be reached at rypg@icloud.com

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