Nick Oza/The Republic/AP

Has Teach for America reached its Waterloo?

Pittsburgh's decision to cancel Teach for America contract demonstrates power of democratically-elected school boards

April 2, 2014 7:00AM ET

In December, Pittsburgh became the first school district to reject an active Teach for America (TFA) contract. Like many urban school districts, Pittsburgh is struggling with budget problems—the school district is projected to run out of money by 2017—and overwhelmingly serves families that struggle with poverty: 73 percent of students in the Pittsburgh School District are enrolled in free or reduced-price school lunch programs. But unlike cities such as Chicago or Philadelphia, where the mayor or governor appoints school board members, Pittsburgh’s Board of Education is democratically-elected, allowing local communities a far more direct influence over decision-making. Indeed, three of the six members of Pittsburgh’s Board of Education were just put in place, and it was these newly elected officials who have rejected the easy answers offered by pro-privatization education "reformers."

The decision to can TFA shows that democratically elected school boards—like Pittsburgh's—are vital tools for defending public education and the public interest. In this case, the elected school board rebuffed the organization’s agenda and tactics.

Undermining teachers

TFA famously trains recent college graduates, who have usually had no other training in education, for a mere five weeks before placing them in a struggling urban or rural school. This model has brought much criticism. Many of these new recruits have little to no actual teaching experience, and they often have few connections with the communities they are thrown into. They are expected to be instantly capable; “microwave teachers,” in Pittsburgh School Board member Regina Holley’s memorable turn of phrase. The attrition rate is astonishingly high: 72 percent of TFA recruits drop out of the teaching workforce within five years.

But if TFA were merely a program designed to train and recruit new temporary teachers, it might be defensible—even if it hardly represents a comprehensive solution to the problems in our schools. The real problem is that TFA has fed into a larger, corporate-driven education movement that has worked to privatize education, pulling resources out of neighborhood schools and abandoning the kids most in need of quality public instruction.

TFA has strong ties to this so-called education "reform" movement, which holds teachers primarily responsible for the learning delays and difficulties associated with poverty. Further, the so-called reform camp mistakes a high teacher replacement rate and public investment in privately-run charter schools for accountability throughout the educational system. Founded in 2007, TFA’s political lobbying arm—Leadership for Educational Equity (LEE)—regularly supports candidates who push policies friendly to charter schools, where many TFA alumni now work. While many charter founders have been well intentioned, their movement has been twisted into a supposed cure-all for public education’s problems. The cure fails when employees are allowed no power—most charter companies fiercely resist unionization—and the public is allowed no mechanisms for accountability—most charter schools do not have to disclose their budgets in the same ways that public institutions do, even though they are using public money.

Teach for America provides recruiting and indoctrination to support a policy agenda of cutting back on teachers, shuttering public schools and replacing them with charters.

TFA's advocacy consistently aligns the organization with people whose support for public education is highly questionable. StudentsFirst founder Michelle Rhee, who oversaw the mass closure of many Washington D.C. schools as the city's schools chancellor, is a TFA alumna. Another alum, North Carolina Republican legislator Rob Bryan, is a prominent backer of school vouchers, which allow public dollars to be used to pay tuition at private schools (including religious institutions). Maryland state senator Bill Ferguson, a Democrat, has backed bills that would weaken the position of seasoned teachers in his state; these include a law that would make it easier to fire veteran teachers and replace them with cheaper newcomers—such as TFA members. Both men were backed by LEE, which hopes to recruit 32,000 TFA alumni to political positions.

As Education Week reported at the beginning of this year, LEE’s efforts are robust: In the last few years the organization has grown from a tiny staff to almost 60 employees with a multi-million dollar budget. Teach for America receives funding from local, state and federal sources and directly provides 70 percent of LEE’s budget, although that money is spent on such things as member recruitment and education (not political work). The rest of LEE's budget comes from private foundations and individuals; they do not disclose their donor list.

In essence, TFA provides recruiting and indoctrination to support a policy agenda of cutting back on the teaching force, shuttering public schools and replacing them with charters. That’s why the decision to cancel Pittsburgh’s TFA contract is a watershed moment for the organization's critics — and for the movement to defend public education more generally. “I don’t see Teach for America as a program to help us,” said School Board member Sylvia Wilson to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Democracy on the school board

There is a reason that TFA was rebuked Pittsburgh—where school board members are democratically elected—and not, say, in Philadelphia or Chicago, where members serve at the pleasure of city or state executives. In both cities the governing body simply acts as a rubber stamp for the mayors and governors as they close down schools and hack into education budgets.

The benefits of democratically elected school boards have manifested themselves in other ways as well. Since December, the Pittsburgh Board of Education board has also rejected three charter school applications, saying that these charter schools did not have an adequate plan for serving students with special needs and English language learners. And it's not just Pittsburgh that's benefiting: Last November, a decisive school board election in Bridgeport, Connecticut gave control of the body to candidates who support funding and fixing traditional public schools, swinging the balance of power away from an outgoing superintendent who oversaw the sweeping charterization of both New Orleans and Philadelphia. (In both of those cases, vast disruption followed with little tangible gain.) Such actions seem to show that when a community is organized, and has the ability to exert their influence, it is harder for top-down organizations like TFA to control the narrative or public policy.

Teach for America, charter school proponents and other top-down reformers have been controlling the terms of the public education dialogue for many years. They have been able to do this, in part, because they have operated in cities where opponents can make a lot of noise but cannot exert any actual power. In Washington D.C., Philadelphia, Chicago, New York, and New Orleans—to name a few—appointed school boards have marched in lock step behind those who hired them. As Pittsburgh and Bridgeport show, allowing more democratic accountability allows for a multi-sided debate. And that means Teach For America will have to demonstrate—like everyone else who receives public money— that it brings added value to the educational system, instead of expecting every public school board to write it a blank check. 

Amy B. Dean is a fellow of the Century Foundation and a principal of ABD Ventures, a consulting firm that works to develop innovative strategies for organizations devoted to social change. She is a co-author, with David Reynolds, of “A New New Deal: How Regional Activism Will Reshape the American Labor Movement.”

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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