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How the Corporate Class Is Using Teach for America to Turn K-12 Teaching Into a Temporary, Low-Paying Job

Having seen how it operates from the inside, I’m convinced that TFA serves to privatize public education.

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A fellow TFA corps member in Chicago who worked at a charter school told me that she met with her principal each Friday to find out if she should bother coming back to work the following Monday. Another told me that his principal explicitly told him that she knew he would only be with her school for two years, so she was going to work him to death. And when he left after his TFA commitment, she would just replace him with a new TFA recruit. Churn and burn is the business model for these schools, and TFA provides a continuous supply of naively idealistic workers who have no choice but to accept their lot. Furthermore, this constant churn of teachers who possess zero or one year of experience can’t possibly be good for the academic or social-emotional development of students who often have little stability in their lives.

By driving down teacher salaries and weakening workplace protections, TFA has a corrosive effect on the teaching profession. But behind TFA’s role as a feeder system for charter schools is a hypocrisy that’s especially galling.

A Rigged Game

Corporate education reformers are constantly hailing “market-based solutions” as the remedy for poor academic performance among low-income students. TFA, charter schools and their corporate benefactors espouse the notion that if low-income students just had more choices in schools, the resulting competition would drive all schools to deliver a higher quality education. Students and parents must be free to vote with their feet and find alternatives; the Darwinian principal of survival of the fittest is what makes a “free market” so effective, claim its corporate proponents. And yet TFA’s rigging of the teacher hiring process in favor of charter school operators demonstrates a complete and utter contempt for local labor markets. When corps members aren’t allowed the freedom to turn down a job because the pay or benefits are inadequate, or because a charter school has a terrible reputation for abusing teachers, there is no “free market” at work.

TFA: An Inverted Labor Union?

Political philosopher Sheldon Wolin proposes in his book Democracy Incorporated that the United States has devolved into a unique, corporate-controlled state that he calls “Inverted Totalitarianism.” Considering the domineering corporate influence on TFA, I would suggest that TFA has become an inverted labor union. Traditional labor unions work to promote the interests of the working people who comprise them by collectively bargaining for higher wages, better benefits and improved working conditions. Through its partnerships with charter schools and its mandate that corps members take the first job they’re offered, TFA is lowering wages, reducing benefits and worsening the working conditions of teachers. It is increasingly clear that the mission of the corporate class is to destroy teachers unions and remake the teaching profession into a temporary, low paying job. The corporate class is getting all of the help it needs from Teach For America.

 

Chad Sommer was a 2011 TFA corps member and taught 4th grade at Chicago’s Rudyard Kipling Elementary School. He was the first and only TFA corps member at the school, and credits the support and mentoring that he received from the school’s veteran union teachers and administration for a positive teaching experience.