Last week I had the pleasure of interviewing Liz Parlett Butcher, New Jersey’s Regional Membership Director of the Association of American Educators. Liz was born and raised in Atlantic County, where she lives with her husband and four children, two of whom have special needs. Where appropriate I’ve added links.
Laura: Liz, I confess that I don’t know much about the Association of American Educators (AAE). Can you fill me in?
Liz: Of course. AAE is the largest national, non-union, professional educators association. We’re in all 50 states, and our members align with our vision in ensuring the teaching profession is student-oriented first. We’re big enough that we can offer a wide variety of professional development opportunities [here’s AAE’s PD calendar] but small enough so that members don’t have to deal with a lot of red tape and bureaucracy. Our national leaders are readily accessible internally and externally.
Laura: So is AAE an alternative teacher union?
Liz: AAE is a professional association, not a union. Some choose to view us as an alternative to belonging to a union, they join AAE because they were not satisfied with their education association. However, we have members who also belong to unions as well as to other education trade associations. AAE is not about “a them versus us” mentality. We differ from the union as we do not engage in collective bargaining and believe in leaving home rule and autonomy to those closest to managing their own individual budgets. AAE assists members who are having trouble with workplace issues, asserting their rights. Additionally, AAE offers our members access to employment protection and legal assistance via the national AAE legal team. Our legal team is available to assist members with any and all legal questions they have regarding their employment. In my experience our members mostly need support on HR issues such as FMLA and disability leave policies. AAE strives to work collaboratively with all educators, including administrators and leaders, not adversarially. We’re all on the same team in the big picture.
AAE does not engage in election or partisan politics, which is refreshing for many educators, although we encourage our members and all educators to be engaged, informed, and active in their local districts. AAE does not take positions on issues unrelated to education.
Laura: And members have to pay dues, right? Just like NJEA?
Liz: Yes, annual membership is $198, which amounts to only $16.50 per month. Members can join anytime and they can also opt-out of membership with AAE at any time, should their needs change.
Laura: How is this different from other education associations?
Liz: Dues with other associations can exceed $1,200 a year, and due to state law educators often only have a 10-day window to opt-out of their membership in a union. AAE believes educators should be able to join and leave associations at any time.
Laura: How did you get into this line of work?
Liz: I was looking to get back into the workforce full time after leaving my former employer of 10 years, and, truth be told, I’ve always been an advocate and wanted to find a position where I was able to focus more on advocacy. My two passions are equity in education and healthcare, and both stem from being a parent of children with special needs. I have four kids. My oldest is on the autism spectrum and has type 1 diabetes. My youngest is also on the spectrum, plus he has dyslexia, so I’m an advocate in my private life for my own kids. Just two years ago I got into a spat with United Healthcare regarding my son’s preferred insulin and they quickly found out they messed with the wrong mama! The story was covered in the Philadelphia Inquirer. After our story ran United Healthcare issued my son a 20-year coverage guarantee of his preferred insulin. I’ve been told by others in healthcare that this is unprecedented.
When my oldest was diagnosed with autism I joined a local non-profit in my area called Faces 4 Autism because I was having trouble accessing services for him. But at that time I was really on my own: There were few resources, no centralization, and even our own pediatrician’s office couldn’t offer us a road map to care or resources in our area, but I learn quickly. When word got out that I was able to obtain services for my son, other parents started asking me for help. I try to help parents by empowering them through education. So, I became a special education advocate by default. At that time I was mostly doing special education advocacy pro-bono with some paid consulting on the side.
But after a while I did need to find a full-time paying job so I started job hunting and stumbled upon AAE. When I researched the organization I found that its mission aligned with my own philosophy: Teaching must be student-oriented, one size doesn’t fit all, teachers must be empowered to find their own voices. AAE’s philosophy of prioritizing students first and elevating teacher voices drew me to apply.
Laura: How big is AAE?
Liz: We have members in every state and we’re growing fast.
Laura: How did AAE get started?
Liz: That’s a funny story! Twenty-five years ago a California insurance consultant and college instructor named Gary Beckner was approached by teachers who felt disenfranchised by their local union. He thought, “why don’t I start something?” After all, the most important thing teachers need is liability insurance — in case they’re sued by a parent — and he knew a lot about that. Now at AAE every member has a $2 million individual liability insurance policy.
Laura: Does NJEA have liability insurance for members?
Liz: Yes, but I believe it’s capped at $1 million.
Laura: So what is your focus in New Jersey?
Liz: Our focus for now is on charter schools — most of which are not unionized — and we’ve established a great partnership with the New Jersey Charter Schools Association (NJCSA). Right now we’re working on growing awareness that we are an education association that supports charter school educators as well as public district educators, and that there are other education association options besides traditional unions. AAE wants charter school leaders and educators to know that we support their growth and together we want to help engage and empower their educator voices.
Laura: Does a whole charter school have to vote to join AAE?
Liz: No, individual teachers can join on their own, even if they’re one of the 18 unionized charter schools in New Jersey. And we are growing rapidly in charters, especially in Jersey City, Newark, and, more recently, Camden. We have had traditional public school teachers join too, they find us on their own or through current members spreading the word about AAE. Educators at colleges, universities, parochial, and private schools can also join, as well as administrators and support staff.
Laura: Has there been an increase in interest in AAE since the Supreme Court’s Janus v. AFSCME decision, which bars union shops from mandating membership and dues payments?
Liz. Yes, thanks to the Janus decision educators can no longer be forced to support a union. Unfortunately the decision didn’t address how difficult it is for educators to opt out of union membership and didn’t address any of the common misconceptions about association rights. For example too many educators mistakenly think that if you leave the union you lose your health insurance or tenure.
Laura: What happens when you walk into a charter school?
Liz: Oh, the leadership welcomes us! At first people weren’t entirely sure about AAE, mistaking us for “another union.” Charter school teachers tell us they need protection and support. I’m glad that’s how they perceive AAE — as protectors who want to empower them. The teachers I speak to seem less concerned about collective bargaining, and more concerned about legal protection and liability insurance. And, really, they want to learn to be their own advocates.
Laura: AAE has a program for advocacy, right?
Liz: Yes, our Advocacy Fellowship program trains teachers to advocate for their students. In fact, New Jersey’s first Charter Advocate of the Year is a charter school teacher who went through the AAE Foundation Advocacy Fellowship program, Roseangela Mendoza, who teaches at The Ethical Community Charter School in Jersey City. Roseangela is amazing: After she became a Fellow she testified to the State Board of Education, published five op-eds, and served on expert panels at AAE Foundation’s Advocacy Summit in Newark, and recently “A Culture of Advocacy” panel at the New Jersey Charter Schools Conference.
Roseangela is not only an outstanding teacher leader but an example of what we do: Supporting teachers as they learn to advocate for their students and giving them a seat at the policy-making table. Who knows better what students need than a teacher? We’re here to help them elevate their voices.
Laura: How do you currently access charter school educators to let them know about AAE and the value of your benefits?
Liz: That’s a great question! Educators can join AAE online directly at www.aaeteachers.org/membership or I can come in to the charter school directly and present a brief powerpoint benefits overview during lunch, or a designated time slot on professional development days. Many charter school leaders opt to allow their educators payroll deduction for our benefits, and typically I work directly with the SBA or HR on setting this option up. Anyone who has any questions or wants to learn more about AAE can contact me directly at [email protected] or via phone at 609-365-9084.
Additionally, our membership team in AAE’s home office can be contacted at 800-704-7799.