Students to Teach for America CEOs: You Are ‘Complicit’ in Attacks on Public Education

Ari Paul

Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp speaking at Tulane University in 2008.

Dani Lea, a sopho­more at Van­der­bilt Uni­ver­si­ty, believes that Teach for Amer­i­ca (TFA) teach­ers in her high school in Char­lotte, North Car­oli­na, were detri­men­tal to her learn­ing expe­ri­ence and for those around her. Lea claimed that her prin­ci­pal did­n’t even know which teach­ers were mem­bers of TFA and which weren’t.

Upon hear­ing this, TFA co-CEO Matthew Kramer said, That’s not our lived expe­ri­ence.” Lea respond­ed, That was my lived experience.”

The vol­ley took place dur­ing an unusu­al open meet­ing at TFA’s mid­town Man­hat­tan head­quar­ters Novem­ber 13 between Unit­ed Stu­dents Against Sweat­shops (USAS) activists and TFA’s top lead­er­ship, which offered the meet­ing after a wide­spread USAS cam­paign against the orga­ni­za­tion that includes vis­it­ing col­lege cam­pus­es to ques­tion the edu­ca­tion organization’s pro­ject­ed image as cru­sad­ing do-good­ers in Amer­i­can pub­lic education.

USAS is the country’s largest stu­dent labor orga­ni­za­tion, which has emerged in recent years as a seri­ous force to be reck­oned on labor issues rang­ing from sweat­shop appar­el pro­duc­tion to cam­pus union dri­ves. The group’s main gripes with TFA and its Peace Corps-like mod­el for Amer­i­can edu­ca­tion, bring­ing col­lege stu­dents — most from elite uni­ver­si­ties — to teach for a short peri­od of time in some of the country’s poor­est school dis­tricts, are that it is inad­e­quate­ly train­ing teach­ers and pro­mot­ing a for-prof­it, anti-union edu­ca­tion reform agen­da.

The Nation also recent­ly released TFA doc­u­ments regard­ing its response to crit­i­cal press, adding to TFA’s recent headaches. USAS is demand­ing that TFA increase teacher train­ing well beyond five-weeks and sev­er ties with anti-union cor­po­ra­tions such as Wal­mart; USAS groups at uni­ver­si­ties like Har­vard have demands their schools sev­er ties with TFA.

After offer­ing an olive branch prais­ing the inten­tions of TFA teach­ers across the coun­try, USAS activists argued that the orga­ni­za­tion acts as a con­ve­nient staffing orga­ni­za­tion for munic­i­pal­i­ties look­ing to purge their career, union­ized teach­ing staff and switch to a cheap­er mod­el based on high turnover.

East­ern Michi­gan Uni­ver­si­ty grad­u­ate stu­dent Will Daniels said his father, a career teacher in Detroit, was laid off in 2011 as a result of the city’s finan­cial cri­sis, and said he saw the aus­ter­i­ty-mind­ed school author­i­ties form­ing a mar­riage of con­ve­nience with TFA. The dis­trict could hire three TFA mem­bers for the price of my dad,” Daniels said.

Kramer, who along with his co-CEO Elisa Vil­lanue­va Beard, patient­ly and calm­ly lis­tened to the stu­dents, denied that the orga­ni­za­tion aims to get rid of exist­ing teach­ers. We only place peo­ple in open posi­tions,” he said. We do not force peo­ple out of a job.”

Beard also reject­ed the idea that TFA pro­vides a pool of short-term teach­ers, say­ing 60 per­cent of TFA trained teach­ers stay for a third year and that while sure­ly many young peo­ple think of it is a place­hold­er posi­tion before grad­u­ate school or some oth­er endeav­or, 67 per­cent stay in education.

But Har­vard USAS activist Han­nah McShea coun­tered that in some school dis­tricts, teacher lay­offs are so mas­sive that vet­er­ans are laid off along with the rook­ies and unsat­is­fac­to­ry teach­ers. TFA pro­vides a solu­tion of syn­thet­ic teach­ers,” she said. It is com­plic­it in austerity.”

Kramer not­ed that TFA mem­bers are sent where there are teacher short­ages, although he admit­ted that it can often be dif­fi­cult to define what a short­age is. For exam­ple, he said, accord­ing to the num­bers there is not a short­age of spe­cial edu­ca­tion teach­ers in New York City, although most city prin­ci­pals would say the opposite.

For Lea, that grey area is the prob­lem. We’re afraid you’re going to place where aren’t short­ages,” she said.

While the TFA lead­ers stressed that the major­i­ty of its mem­bers are placed in tra­di­tion­al pub­lic schools rather than char­ters, the web­site Edushys­ter pub­lished inter­nal doc­u­ments ear­li­er this year many char­ter oper­a­tors won’t even con­sid­er open­ing new schools with­out TFA to pro­vide a sup­ply of teacher tal­ent” (empha­sis theirs).

USAS nation­al orga­niz­er Lee­wana Thomas said after the meet­ing that the group was unsat­is­fied with TFA’s respons­es. While Kramer said TFA was ded­i­cat­ed to expand­ing train­ing, he offered lit­tle in specifics and didn’t address the issue of cor­po­rate ties with com­pa­nies like Gold­man Sachs and Walmart.

These com­pa­nies, Thomas said, gut wages and ben­e­fits for par­ents and desta­bi­lize com­mu­ni­ties, adding to the impov­er­ish­ment that con­tributes to stu­dents’ dif­fi­cul­ties in the class­room. When asked where TFA should get fund­ing instead, she said, We think that the fund­ing should be in pub­lic education.”

The cam­paign against TFA is about some­thing big­ger than one orga­ni­za­tion. Stu­dents admit that many peo­ple who work for the orga­ni­za­tion or enter into its teach­ing corps have gen­uine hopes about improv­ing edu­ca­tion, espe­cial­ly for low-income com­mu­ni­ties and minor­i­ty stu­dents. But the organization’s role in pub­lic edu­ca­tion, USASers argue, is a strong­ly neg­a­tive one.

USAS denied insin­u­a­tions that it was act­ing as a sur­ro­gate for the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion Teach­ers, say­ing that while it did accept fund­ing from that union, it receives fund­ing from numer­ous unions and oth­er orga­ni­za­tions which do not steer the group’s agenda.

AFT Pres­i­dent Ran­di Wein­garten said in a statement,

Stu­dent voic­es are impor­tant, and what USAS has to say is impor­tant. They’re ask­ing TFA to go back to its roots and place edu­ca­tors where there are short­ages rather then being used to low­er costs by replac­ing expe­ri­enced teach­ers. They’re rais­ing real con­cerns about TFA’s teacher train­ing and cor­po­rate ties.

Kramer and Beard promised to hold fur­ther talks with USAS to address con­cerns and come to a con­sen­sus, while Thomas said USAS mem­bers at the meet­ing will go back to their cam­pus­es and con­tin­ue to high­light what they see as edu­ca­tion­al injus­tices encour­aged by TFA.

Ari Paul has cov­ered pol­i­tics for The Nation, Vice, The Guardian, Dis­sent, Jacobin, Al Jazeera Amer­i­ca and many oth­er outlets.
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