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TFA Teachers and Alumni Continue to Challenge Its Influence

Last month, activists launched the first national campaign against the organization — which isn't backing down anytime soon.

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Teach for America is at universities, recruiting high-achieving graduates to teach in the nation’s underserved urban and rural areas. It's at school boards, lobbying districts to renew its contracts and import hundreds of its members. It's in corporate boardrooms, asking for  tens of millions in funding. With more than 32,000 alumni, its former participants helm the majority of Achievement First charter schools, half of KIPP schools, and the superintendencies of D.C., Louisiana, and Tennessee. They  dominate the well-funded, well-connected universe of charter schools and high-stakes testing advocacy. Teach for America is, increasingly, America. Now, it's facing a civil war.

Last month, TFA alumni and members critical of the organization joined students, parents, and community activists at Chicago's Free Minds/Free People education conference for a summit titled “Organizing Resistance to Teach for America and Its Role in Privatization.” (The Education for Liberation Network, which runs the conference, works with organizers but does not control the outcomes of summits.) It was  the launch of the first national campaign against TFA and the first national-level convergence of dissident TFA rank and file.

While debate over TFA traditionally revolves around the effectiveness of its teaching model—recruits receive just five weeks of pre-service training and commit to only two years of teaching—organizers are focused on TFA’s broader political impact. With formidable corporate funding and partnership, TFA is part of a market-oriented reform movement that involves expanding charter schools to compete with district schools, pegging teachers' job security to students' standardized-test scores, and churning in fresh teachers while weeding out those who “underperform,” regardless of experience. These moves purport to enhance student outcomes; they also increase teacher turnover and destabilize school systems.

Summit participants raised issues with TFA at its many points of impact, from teaching to reform politics. Some who had gone through the program said the fast-track training had left them underprepared for the classroom and with little opportunity to voice their concerns. Others came from teacher and parent activist groups that champion critical pedagogy, student voice, and other goals that don't necessarily jive with TFA's emphasis on the role of singular teacher-leaders in mitigating poverty. Of these, some came from Chicago—ground zero for school closings, charter expansion, and mass teacher firings—and described TFA's  continued growth in the city as the blunt edge of Mayor Rahm Emanuel's drastic overhaul of district schools.

Community activists from New Orleans, whose schools have faced an upheaval similar to Chicago’s, are co-directing the campaign. Hurricane Katrina stoked the firing of 7,500 district staff as education dollars were usurped  from the city, the annihilation of the city's black workforce, the accession of most schools to charter operators, and the quadrupling of TFA's New Orleans regional corps. “Not just in education but housing, public services, health care—we're finding that a lot of native New Orleanians are being pushed out,” says Ruth Idakula, an organizer with the Community Education Project.

Before the storm, “the experienced teachers were like a grandmother to me,” Briana O’Neil, 22, told the crowd about her time as a student during the hurricane. Afterward, “kids were angry. We would have a different teacher every week.”

Teach for America is commonly viewed as an apolitical service program whose political impact reduces to its biggest names, like Wendy Kopp, its founder and most outspoken advocate, or Michelle Rhee, the controversial founder and CEO of StudentsFirst who recently became implicated in a  cheating scandal during her tenure as D.C. schools chancellor. Behind this image, TFA anchors a political empire. At the summit, organizers showed a chart with 43 charter, advocacy, and training organizations that, as of 2011, had formal partnerships with TFA, one or more TFA alumni in senior leadership, or TFA alumni founders. TFA's 501(c)(4) spinoff, Leadership for Educational Equity, helps fund and train TFA alumni to enter political office and other leadership positions, and  its members and resources trend toward charter-friendly, testing-heavy reform.

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