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Teach for America rises as political powerhouse

Reader Comment: Why do poor black and brown children deserve white elitist trying to make themselves feel better by teaching in the inner city for two years? Why do kids in the suburbs get real teachers who have degrees in teaching and over 450+ of training? TFA is turning the education profession into a business that believes teaching is a skill anyone can do do with very little professional knowledge and no training. Unless you are willing to send your kids to a TFA corps member then you should ask yourself why it's OK to send other people kids to these insta-teachers.

Reader Comment: TFA is doing more harm than good. They're exacerbating the churn of ill-trained novices teachers in the most difficult classrooms. They're operating as scabs where no shortages exist. They're pushing to maintain the status quo of privatization and test based accountability, which has been the real roadblock to genuine reform. For more on the ills of TFA, check this out.

Reader Comment:
'm a longtime college teacher of writing, a former head of English
Education program, and the sort of teacher who is often asked for a
recommendation for TFA.

I won't be doing that anymore, and there are some simple reasons why.

First, I'm a third generation teacher, and my commitment to teachers and
students is in the marrow of my bones. And, in the marrow of my bones, I
know that a few weeks of summer preparation is simply not enough to go out and teach children in need of great teaching. Second, TFA has pretty clearly
aligned themselves with anti-union forces in places like Chicago and elsewhere,
and as a second generation unionist, this bothers me a great deal.

The final reason is the one that I want to emphasize here. I think that
TFA often sets up young, idealistic people for horrible failure. It puts
them into situations where students are in great, desperate need, but it
provides them with few ways of meeting that need. Also, the children
themselves do not need teachers who will, even for noble reasons, cycle
through. They need people committed to them and their education for the
long run.

At any rate, I just wanted to let my colleagues in PK-12 know that there are
those of us in higher education who are paying attention. We are not
"fans" of TFA, and I, for one, am evangelizing among my higher education

Keep up the good fight BATs.

by Stephanie Simon

Teach for America is best known for sending bright young college graduates to teach for two years in poor communities.

But it's much more than a service organization. It's a political powerhouse.

With a $100 million endowment and annual revenues approaching $300 million, TFA is flush with cash and ambition. Its clout on Capitol Hill was demonstrated last week when a bipartisan group of lawmakers made time during the frenzied budget negotiations to secure the nonprofit its top legislative priority — the renewal of a controversial provision defining teachers still in training, including TFA recruits, as "highly qualified" to take charge of classrooms.

It was a huge victory that flattened a coalition of big-name opponents, including the NAACP, the National PTA and the National Education Association. But it barely hints at TFA's growing leverage.

TFA has already produced an astounding number of alumni who have transformed the education landscape in states from Tennessee to Texas by opening public schools to competition from private entrepreneurs; rating teachers in part on their ability to raise student test scores; and pressing to eliminate tenure and seniority-based job protections. Convinced that quicker, bolder change is needed, TFA executives are mining their network of 32,000 alumni to identify promising leaders and help them advance.

TFA is now embedding select alumni in congressional offices and in high-ranking jobs in major school districts, including New York City and D.C. It's providing start-up cash to alumni to launch "game-changing" advocacy groups and business ventures. Its political arm, meanwhile, is recruiting veteran tacticians to identify key levers of power in cities such as Houston -- then help alumni seize them.

"We don't have a choice" but to raise up more alumni as leaders, or "in 20 years, we'll just wake up and find. . . we have made only incremental progress," said Elisa Villanueva Beard, co-CEO of Teach for America. "We've got to be aggressive."

That prospect alarms Arnold Fege, an advocate for low-income children. "When TFA alumni gain political clout, they often push to expand TFA's role in their communities, a cycle that has fueled TFA's rapid growth in recent years. To have this financial juggernaut trying to place more people in positions of power. . . it's a concern," said Fege, president of Public Advocacy for Kids. "They're a special interest. And their interest is in making sure of the survival of their organization."

TFA's most ambitious initiative is a $750,000 fellowship aimed at grooming alumni for posts as state cabinet secretaries or superintendents. Earlier this year, TFA selected 12 alumni to participate. A few already held top education policy jobs in major school districts; TFA helped the rest land senior positions in districts from D.C. to Garland, Tex. TFA pays for each fellow to work with a personal executive coach and sends them on regular leadership retreats.

Civic leaders regularly "call TFA and say, 'We want to know who is available and ready to take on a bigger role. . . Who is in position to take a cabinet job?'" Villanueva Beard explained. Now, she said, she will always have names at the ready.

TFA also selected seven alumni this year to work for senators, representatives and the House Education and the Workforce Committee.

The Capitol Hill Fellows do the work of regular congressional staffers. But in an arrangement that Hill ethics experts call highly unusual -- though not illegal -- their salaries are funded by a private individual. The entire $500,000 cost is picked up by Arthur Rock, a wealthy venture capitalist in San Francisco.

Rock, who sits on TFA's board, has become a leading financier of education reform. He has made sizable donations to legislative and school board candidates across the country who support expanding charter schools and, in some cases, vouchers. Until recently, Rock also sat on the board of the Children's Scholarship Fund, which advocates public subsidies to send low-income children to private and parochial schools.

Rock declined to answer questions about whether the TFA fellows share his policy goals. He funds the program, he said, "to give bright and energized young people the chance to experience government first-hand and give back to the country."

The fellows declined requests for interviews, citing office policies against staff talking to the press.

TFA's political arm, Leadership for Educational Equality, has also been ramping up its activity. The group recruits and trains TFA alumni to run for elected office -- and helps them out financially with donations from the LEE treasury, which is stocked by both TFA and by private donors.

LEE contributed nearly $20,000 last fall to help elect two TFA alumni to the board of education in Nevada, a state where TFA has been seeking to expand its presence, despite legislative resistance. This fall, LEE has advised four TFA alumni running for school board in Atlanta.

A LEE spokesman wouldn't disclose the group's budget for the year, but it more than doubled its spending last year, to $3.5 million, boasts a staff of 60 and is still growing.

LEE's internal job postings hint at its ambitious goals. It's seeking seasoned tacticians with "excellent political instincts," including regional directors who can "help members understand where the power lies and what opportunities must be seized."

Among the skills required for one open position: "Deep passion for changing [the] educational policy landscape."

TFA's leaders say they don't have a fixed idea how that landscape should look and don't expect their alumni to promote any particular policies, beyond the urgency of overhauling an education system that leaves too many poor and minority children behind. Their alumni do tend to share common goals, such as expanding charter schools and holding teachers accountable for student test score gains.

Critics object to TFA on several grounds. Studies have shown that TFA teachers generally perform well -- especially in secondary school math -- but many critics, including teachers unions, object to putting rookies in charge of the neediest children, including students with disabilities. TFA recruits spend a summer training and get coaching throughout their two-year stints. But they often have just 15 to 20 hours of actual teaching experience before they take charge of their classrooms.

Critics also express concern that too many TFA alumni race up the career ladder too quickly; some alums who advance to leadership roles in their 20s and 30s describe themselves as lifelong educators based on two years of teaching followed by several years working in TFA's vast administration.

"They don't get a real robust understanding of the very complex issues facing traditional public schools, and then they move into positions where they’re trying to change the conditions at those very schools," said Janelle Scott, a TFA alum who now teaches education policy at the University of California at Berkeley.

Villanueva Beard, however, said TFA alumni have what they need to lead: A fierce belief in the potential of low-income kids and the courage to challenge the status quo. TFA will continue to finance alumni training, she said, as long as "we think they're doing good for the world."

The accelerated efforts to boost alumni into leadership roles comes at a delicate time for TFA.

To recoup its training costs, TFA charges districts $3,000 to $5,000 per teacher per year for the right to hire its recruits. (That's in addition to teachers' salaries, which are paid by the districts where they work.) TFA also seeks grants from states that want its teachers.

In a job post seeking a new vice president of state funding, TFA predicts whopping growth in state grants: It aims to collect $350 million in 2015, up from $185 million last year.

That kind of expansion, however, will require buy-in from many more governors, legislatures, superintendents and state and local boards of education.

And that is far from certain. Though TFA placed a record 11,000 teachers this year, signs of a backlash are emerging.

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton, a Democrat, this summer vetoed $1.5 million in funding to expand TFA’s presence. In Nevada, the legislature defeated the governor’s request for $2 million to bring more TFA teachers to the state. The new superintendent in Kansas City, Mo., greatly scaled back TFA's presence in his district. And in California, state officials imposed new restrictions on TFA and other novice teachers working with students who speak limited English.

A more formal resistance movement is also growing. Disillusioned TFA alumni have begun pressuring school districts not to hire TFA. Students United for Public Education has begun handing out anti-TFA fliers on college campuses in hopes of persuading seniors not to apply.

TFA alumni elevated to district and state leadership jobs would be in position to smooth the way for TFA expansion in their communities, despite such turbulence.

But Villanueva Beard said TFA does not seek or expect favorable treatment from the alumni it helps into power.

"It's never even occurred to me," she said. "Of course they're TFA and hopefully they’re proud of that. . . but I feel very confident that we put no pressure, absolutely no pressure, on alums in terms of their work and what we expect for TFA."

Shawn Stover, a former charter school executive now in leadership training, agreed. TFA helped him land a job as an instructional superintendent in D.C. public schools and is paying an executive coach to help him develop a more outgoing leadership style, but Stover said he doesn’t feel beholden. "I don’t know that there is a party line, but if there is, I do my own thing," he said.

As for the Capitol Hill initiative, job posts touting the program to alumni promise a chance to "accelerate your impact on federal policy,” and do “direct and substantive work on education policy," but TFA executives said the fellows are explicitly instructed not to work on matters affecting the organization.

The line, however, isn't always clear. Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) said his TFA fellow, Alex Payne, recently took the initiative to write "really good memo" about "whether we should be paying more attention" to the federal Education Department's Office of Innovation and Improvement. That office gives out Investing in Innovation grants -- and TFA was one of the biggest recipients in 2010, winning a $50 million grant.

Holt said Payne's memo, prompted by a question he asked about the innovation office, was more an "explanatory paper" than a piece of advocacy. He said he saw no conflict of interest.

The congressman has had fellows in his office for years; he said he benefits from their perspectives and enjoys teaching them new skills. Most, however, are funded by professional associations and nonprofits. Holt said he was not aware a private individual paid Payne’s salary until POLITICO explained the arrangement.

"That's interesting," he said. "I don't necessarily see a problem with it."

He considered. "I will think about that."

— Stephanie Simon





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