Broad Foundation emails indicate charter operators reluctant to expand without TFA presence
By Chad Sommer and Jennifer Berkshire
Last weekend, former Newark Star columnist Bob Braun published a bombshell column, arguing that the state-appointed superintendent of Newark, NJ schools, Teach For America (TFA) alum Cami Anderson, wants to waive seniority rules to fire upwards of 700 tenured Newark teachers and replace a percentage of them with TFA recruits. Executive Director of Teach For America New Jersey, Fatimah Burnam Watkins, quickly dismissed Braun’s assertions as *conspiracy theories,* while claiming TFA has a small footprint in Newark. But the heated back-and-forth misses the larger issue: TFA plays an increasingly essential role in staffing the charters that are rapidly expanding, replacing public schools from Newark to Philadelphia to Chicago to Los Angeles. In fact, newly released documents indicate that many charter operators won’t even consider opening new schools without TFA to provide a supply of *teacher talent.*
TFA a requirement
Emails sent by the Broad Foundation, a leading advocate of market-based education reform and charter expansion, and acquired through a freedom of information request, reveal that many charter management organizations consider TFA presence in a region a necessary prerequisite for opening new schools. According to the documents, charter management organizations including Rocketship, KIPP, Noble, LEARN and Uncommon Schools all indicated that a supply of TFA teachers was a general pre-condition for expanding into a new region. The emails, which detail the Broad Foundation’s failed efforts to lure high-performing charter operators to Detroit, were released as part of a trove of thousands of documents requested as part of an investigation into Michigan’s embattled Education Achievement Authority.
Greetings from the charter state
In New Jersey, where controversial charter expansion plans have been unveiled in Newark and Camden, TFA is likely to play a key role in providing *local talent* to staff new schools. Cami Anderson’s One Newark education reform plan is predicated on 40% of Newark public schools becoming privately managed charter schools by the 2016-2017 school year. Meanwhile in Camden, yet another TFA-alum-turned-state-appointed-superintendent, Paymon Rouhanifard, has begun introducing local residents to the charter operators that will soon be *turning around* their public schools, but without naming the schools to be turned around. [Note: effective in the fall of 2014, TFA corps members in Newark, Camden and Trenton will all be managed under a single entity: TFA New Jersey].
In Fatimah Burnam Watkins’ response to Bob Braun’s assertions, she points to the relatively tiny number of TFA corps members employed by the Newark Public Schools: *There are currently 65 TFA teachers in NPS schools (48 in their first year, 17 in their second year.* But as Watkins is no doubt aware, this number leaves out the corps members who are staffing local charter schools. If Newark bears any resemblance to neighboring Philly, the vast majority of corps members are now placed in charter schools—a pattern that is quickly becoming the norm in urban areas across the country. As previously documented on this site here and here, TFA has become an essential source of labor for urban charter schools.
The ROI of TFA
Watkins also takes issue with Braun’s citing of a *months old* announcement from the Walton Family Foundation, TFA’s single largest funder, regarding a grant to recruit, train and support 370 TFA corps members in New Jersey. But it’s clear that the Walton Foundation, which has provided start-up funding for one out of four charter schools in the US, sees the expansion of TFA as key to its goal of *infusing competitive pressure into local schools systems.* In Los Angeles, the Walton Foundation, which is led by heirs to the Walmart fortune, has pumped millions of dollars into helping charters and TFA expand simultaneously. Last summer Walton gave TFA $20 million, much of it earmarked for the recruitment of 700 new TFA corps members in LA. An additional $4.5 million in start-up funds from Walton will help to open 23 new charter schools in the city. Ninety four percent of TFA corps members in LA last year were place in charter schools.
The perfect fit
Cities from Newark to Chicago to Los Angeles to Philadelphia suffer from a surplus of experienced—read expensive—teachers. Add in the fact that the solidarity of a union doesn’t sit well with the privatization movement’s financial backers, and temporary, inexpensive Teach For America recruits are the obvious go-to. Anderson’s One Newark vision calls for the rapid expansion of charter schools, and by proxy, the growth of TFA. As Anderson puts it: *Teachers are selected because of their quality and ‘fit’ with the school mission.* If the mission is to drive down teacher pay, bust unions and burn out novice teachers every two years, then TFA is the perfect *fit.*
Chad Sommer was a 2011 TFA corps member and taught 4th grade at Chicago’s Rudyard Kipling Elementary School. Jennifer Berkshire is the creator and editor of EduShyster.
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