reports and investigations have documented dubious business practices of charter schools, but here’s a new one we have not heard of before: Some charter operators are attempting to impose a financial penalty on teachers who leave to take a job in the public schools. Here’s the story from American Prospect magazine (and we thank Communications Director Ed Sills of the Texas AFL-CIO for bringing it to our attention):
Last month, the Massachusetts Teachers Association reported on the story of Matthew Kowalski, a high school history and economics teacher who received a $6,087 bill over the summer from his former employer-a suburban charter school in Malden, Massachusetts. Kowalski had worked at the Mystic Valley Regional Charter School for seven years, but with three young children and another one on the way, he said he wanted to find a teaching job that would offer something more stable than at-will employment.
Mystic Valley now seeks to collect thousands of dollars in “liquid damages” for Kowalski’s departure. Every spring, the charter school requires its employees to sign one-year contracts for the following school year, but since many new teaching positions don’t open up until May, June, and July, this puts teachers in a tough position if they want to consider looking for alternative jobs. Kowalski signed Mystic Valley’s 2016-2017 contract in April, got a job offer from a traditional public school in May, and gave the charter written and verbal notice by May 20. Mystic Valley then hired Kowalski’s replacement, whom Kowalski trained. Two months later, his $6,000 bill arrived. It didn’t take long for Kowalski to learn there were others who had faced a similar fate. MTA Today reported on another teacher who had worked at Mystic Valley for four years, who was billed $4,900 in “damages” for giving notice over the summer.
As MTA’s legal division worked to help the former Mystic Valley teacher fight these charges, Kowalski’s attorney stumbled upon something surprising: Mystic Valley employment contracts included non-compete provisions, prohibiting teachers from working in any public or private school in any of the six “sending districts” near the charter school. Though charters are often framed as a way to induce competition into American schools, non-compete agreements–which have grown increasingly common in the private sector–make clear that some charter employers don’t believe that schools should compete for teaching talent. Nor is it clear that the agreements are even legal, or enforceable.