George Joseph, writing in The Nation, describes how Teach for America deals with critics. It has a rapid response team to debunk criticism, and it uses its extensive network in the halls of power to head off critics long before they publish. As more and more ex-TFA publish their criticism of the organization, the rapid response team is kept very busy. One of those critics–Alexandra Hootnick– wrote an article for The Nation. She filed a Freedom of Information Act with the U.S. Department of Education to get information about TFA; an operative inside the DOE immediately informed TFA. TFA knew about the article long before it was published, and the response was ready when the article appeared. The brand must be protected.
TFA has installed friendly allies in key places in D.C.:
With this extensive organizational infrastructure behind them, Teach For America alumni have climbed to prominence in the education policy sphere. As Hootnick noted in her piece for The Nation, “More than seventy alumni currently hold public office, including two state senators. Within the federal government, their ranks include two assistants to Education Secretary Arne Duncan, as well as education policy advisers and associates in the offices of Senators Harry Reid and Al Franken and Representative George Miller.” And despite its non-profit status, which prohibits partisan political advocacy, from 2010 to 2013 TFA poured nearly $2.4 million into lobbying and “direct contact” with political figures to pass state legislation recognizing TFA’s five-week summer training as an alternative to traditional teacher certification, and to secure “adequate federal funding.”
While Teach For America has failed at providing the nation with many long-term educators, they have provided a stream of political operatives, who have gone on to help fuel their former organization’s expansion and codify its narrow, corporate vision of education reform. Though TFA corp members often complain of a lack of institutional support in the classroom, TFA has been proactive in setting up regional professional networks and leadership organizations to groom corp members for influential political platforms after their classroom stints. TFA’s “Leadership for Educational Equity,” “a nonpartisan organization dedicated to empowering Teach for America corps members and alumni to grow as leaders,” has helped groom numerous policy makers, policy leaders, and education reform lobbyists; in fact, according to the latest IRS documents available, in 2012 alone TFA’s Leadership for Educational Equity, a 501c(4), spent nearly $3.2 million on “leadership development,” the vast majority of which came from five undisclosed donors. Furthermore, TFA’s tax records from 2010 to 2013 reveal the organization gave over $7.3 million to Leadership for Educational Equity.
Among TFA’s prominent alums are John White, who has promoted charter schools in Louisiana and Cami Anderson, now pushing charter schools in Newark. TFA alums were also engaged in Chicago, where the closure of 50 public schools was premised on the creation of new charter schools, whose teachers would be largely TFA.
The anti-TFA movement appears to be picking up steam. Last month, the national student labor organization, United Students Against Sweatshops, announced a national campaign to kick Teach For America off campus at 15 colleges across the country. While the campaign will not immediately affect the organization’s corporate funding, the ongoing PR toll could damage TFA’s brand. As organizer for United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) Leewana Thomas explained, “By disrupting TFA’s campus recruitment efforts, we can cut off their efforts to capitalize on universities’ academic prestige.” At Harvard, for example, this September, USAS activists delivered a letter asking administrators to cut ties with TFA.
“We’ve asked schools to cut ties with TFA because our schools are a major source of corp members for TFA,” said Harvard USAS activist Hannah McShea, “The idea is that these kids [recruits] are going to be super energetic and passionate, but honestly they [students] need more than that. On the national level, Teach for America hasn’t been receiving a lot of criticism for about twenty years. This is a new thing for them.”
In a statement to The Nation, Teach For America claimed, “Most organizations have a media response strategy and TFA is no different—we work to correct the record when things are inaccurate. We also work to proactively share the stories of our teachers, students and the communities we partner with.” But as more and more of these same teachers, students, and communities speak out against their experiences with Teach For America, the organization is less able to “correct the record,” salvage its brand, and thereby justify its continued expansion.