The Fight Ahead

What we should be talking about when we talk about Teach for America

Teachers and students protest the closure of 50 public schools in Chicago. Teach for America increasingly drives the policies behind such school closures.

Unless you’ve been under a rock, you’ve no doubt noticed that the debate about Teach for America has ratcheted up considerably in recent weeks. Here’s the quick and dirty version: urban districts are closing dozens of schools and laying off teachers, even as they’re bringing in new Teach for America recruits. When news began to spread that a popular Chicago teacher had been laid off (the news delivered by his mother, no less), the back-and-forth reached a boiling point. How was it right for the Chicago Public Schools to axe a well-regarded teacher, one of 2000 let go, while expanding the number of TFA corps members, who’ll be entering the city’s schools this fall after just five weeks of training?

It’s a heated and emotional discussion but it also misses the larger point. TFA’s threat to urban teachers isn’t in these new corps members but in the policy of rampant urban charter expansion that TFA is driving. What’s more, the rancorous tone of the debate threatens to push away the growing number of alumni who have begun to question TFA’s mission and orientation. So what should we be talking about? Here’s a look:

By fueling charter expansion, TFA is undermining public schools
You wouldn’t know it from the heat of the debate but Teach for America has largely abandoned plans to expand into urban districts in any significant way. Instead, TFA increasingly serves as the designated labor force for urban charters. In Chicago, for example, where charter expansion is the real driver of public school closures and teacher layoffs, TFA has functioned as a placement agency for the fast-growing and politically connected UNO charter chain since 2010. In Philadelphia, where 23 schools were closed this spring and thousands of teachers and support staff laid off, TFA supplies hundreds of new teachers for charters in the city. Of the 257 corps members teaching in Philly in 2012, just 21 were in district schools.

Rocketship Education, which expects to serve 25,000 students by 2017, relies on TFA to supply more than half of its teachers.

From Detroit to Cleveland to Newark, NJ, where TFA recruits will live in a specially constructed Teachers Village adjacent to their charter schools, the story is the same: TFA provides the labor force to charter schools which are expanding at the expense of traditional public schools and teachers. TFA is also the primary labor supplier to the fastest growing charter chains in the country. Last year TFA partnered with Imagine Schools, the largest network of for-profit charter schools, with 75 schools in more than a dozen states. And don’t forget Rocketship, the charter chain darling of Silicon Valley, which relies upon TFA to supply more than half of the teachers in its California schools. Rocketship is in the process of opening charters in Milwaukee, Washington DC, New Orleans and Nashville, and expects to serve 25,000 students by 2017.

TFA views traditional public schools with disdain
TFA’s shift away from its original mission of serving public schools to becoming a provider of labor for charters also means that its much vaunted leadership pipeline is producing a different kind of leader. TFA increasingly grooms leaders with no experience of traditional public schools. Recent corps members teach in charters, go on to lead charters, or move on to careers in educational policy in which they advocate for more charters. Their first encounter with a public education system will likely be when they are hired to dismantle one. 

TFA co-CEO Matt Kramer is deeply involved in efforts to transform the Minneapolis Public Schools into a network of charters. (Photo by Juice Fong).

TFA’s leaders are personally tied to charter expansion
Teach for America’s top leaders are deeply, personally invested in charter expansion. Wendy Kopp, TFA founder and chair of its board, is married to Richard Barth, who runs the KIPP network of 125 charter schools. A quick look at TFA’s management reveals a crisscross of connections with fast-growing charters. But it’s the role of new co-CEO Matt Kramer in facilitating charter expansion that may be the most revealing. Minneapolis, where Kramer lives, has been the site of an intense debate over TFA’s role in the public schools. But as in other urban areas, the focus on a relatively small number of corps members overshadows TFA’s more significant role in advocating for the break up of the Minneapolis Public Schools. Minneapolis is currently home to more than 40 charter schools. Charter School Partners, to which Kramer has close family ties, plans to open an additional 20 charters there in the next five years, making mass school closures and layoffs inevitable. (Note: I’ve written extensively about Kramer’s unusually personal involvement in reshaping the Minneapolis education landscape here, here and here.)

TFA puts an excellent face on a politically-driven mission
In a sign that TFA is increasingly sensitive to public criticism, Josh Anderson, the executive director of the organization’s Chicago region recently attempted to ‘set the record straight’ about TFA’s role there. The snow job begins in the very first paragraph when TFA attributes the layoffs of teachers in the Chicago Public Schools to “a budget crisis linked to pension reform,” a talking point helpfully provided by Rahm Emanuel. There is no mention of charter expansion in Chicago (the new CPS budget directs $33 million more to charters than in the previous year), or of TFA’s role in fueling that growth. Nor is there any word of the closure of 50 public schools this spring. Meanwhile, construction on the new UNO Soccer Academy High School on Chicago’s Southwest side, halted due to a corruption investigation, has resumed. The school will open its doors to the first class of students this fall. No doubt there will be plenty of Teach for America recruits on hand to welcome them.

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  1. This is piece certainly shows that you are down with *excellence*! Seriously, thanks for clarifying this for teachers. I’ve seen lots of arguing on message boards and in groups about things that really aren’t the points that threaten public schools and teachers.

    1. Thanks for posting this video. Excellent description of how the reform tentacles are reaching everywhere. If you haven’t watched it yet, you should. This is happening in places other than Minneapolis too.

  2. TFA really can’t decide who or what they are, can they?? It’s clearly getting harder for them to define their mission, as they continually need to present as a “non-profit” savior. Time to close up shop, Wendy Kopp.

  3. Great piece. I hadn’t thought about how they don’t have any experience in public schools anymore so the preference for charters when they go on to leadership positions is baked in.
    The elephant in the room for me as the parent of a child in a traditional district is how wildly inequitable it is that we have somehow ended up with state and federal leaders who CLEARLY prefer and promote charter schools, when only 5% of public school students (nationwide) attend charter schools!
    Parents of children in traditional public schools (so the vast, vast majority of parents) would not hire “reform” leaders if they knew that most of the kids in the district were going to be abandoned, because reformers have, as you put it so well, “disdain” for district schools. “They disdain” 95% of our kids, then, and they shouldn’t work as leaders of public school districts.

  4. Bullseye; very well put, ES.

    We have very little data on the placement of TFAers. Considering how much government money they are taking, it’s way past time to start looking at this.

  5. Time for the TFA teacher temp agency to add to the state and federal tax base like any other corporation. Government needs to “reform” the IRS 990, 501(c)(3), 501(c)(4) code for “Non-profit” money making industries like TFA.

    1. Reform IRS non-profits is exactly what needs to be done. However, the IRS was just subjected to a manufactured witch hunt that both parties used to demonize investigations into the tax exempt status of their money laundering ‘charities’ (scare quotes required). It’s pretty convenient timing just a little over a year out from the 2014 congressional elections. Who in congress or the WH is going to use the hated & incompetent IRS to take down their sugar daddies?

  6. Why no Joe Nathan or Brain Sweeney defending Matt Kramer and TFA , and commenting on how we need more charter$ and $chool choice$ in MN and how principal$ need the right to be able to choose TFA teachers because they’re better? This is your busine$$, the manufactured cri$i$ in education, get in here and defend your “non-profit$” and make some money off the kids, I mean for the kid$. Also mention how greedy career teachers are and how we caused the “achievement gap.” Thank you, I will check back.

  7. I have seen actual charter school employment web pages that specifically state that they give hiring priority to Teach for America applicants and alum. I find this astounding…you base your hiring preferences on an affiliation rather than experience and results? They prefer someone with 5 weeks of training in a controlled environment to someone who has actual experience working with at-risk students in inner cities? I think it comes down to a cult-like mindset, and the fact that they can pay these TFAers a lot less.

  8. The equation for *excellence* is elementary… At least in Chicago
    (ALEC + TFA) – (CPS/RIF) = UNO
    a.k.a. Public corruption or the CHICAGO/ILLINOIS/KING MADIGANLAND

    (Bonus prize: eliminate pension underfunding debt by eliminating public education)

  9. Great column as usual. In our state, Washington State, we just voted in charter schools (we held out over 15 year and 3 separate votes before Gates and his billionaire friends came in – they only won by 42k votes).

    TFA has gotten very little traction in our state or region (Puget Sound area including Seattle). There only 17 TFA teachers in our region and I think that’s because we pushed back hard. But with the coming of charters, I think that’s where TFA will get their toehold. (Of course, we only allow 8 charters per year so that will also make it harder.)

    The current TFA program at the U of Washington is running in the red and I hope to get this out there because UW has had rising tuition rates AND not been able to accommodate all the in-state students who want to enroll.

    I also note that JC Penney has a program to ask customer to roll up their charges to the next dollar and give the difference to different programs, TFA being one of them. Let JCP know you don’t like TFA and TFA is not hurting for money.

  10. So distressing, ES! But surely there’s something humorous somewhere? … perhaps it’s time to top off the ole winebox? I rely on you to make me laugh only here I’m just hyperventilating and crying. sigh….

    Here’s another link that sums things up nicely: (IMO).

    1. Don’t you worry Red Queen. I’m only allowed to write one serious piece every six months 🙂

  11. Whether hired to directly replace laid-off public school teachers, or hired to staff charters that displace real public schools, TFA is a modern day, Ivy League alum-led and staffed Pinkerton agency, supplying scabs to break the teachers unions and profiteer over the hostile takeover of public education.

  12. And so, what strategies can we use to counter the massive destruction that seems to advance, regardless of voters, experts, or common good?

  13. Notice that the “Rocketship” students in the picture are in brightly colored cubicles getting their curriculum delivered by computer. This is the ultimate goal. There won’t be enough jobs left for TFAs either. They are effectively eliminating themselves.

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