Friday, July 26, 2013

Teach for America's New Clothes

Photo by Jeremy Wilburn_CCTalk about Teach for America is lively this summer and not all of it is positive. With there being more than enough ugly in the world to go around, reproaching TFA for not measuring up to some external vision of social reform feels akin to criticizing the Peace Corps for not instituting electoral reform in a developing nation. However, since taxpayers are paying more than ever for TFA's services, some additional scrutiny is warranted.

Questions about TFA's impact on public education are more than just disgruntled rumblings from veteran teachers. Some of its graduates have begun criticizing the organization, and in Chicago, TFA is being taken to task by some for being 21st century union busters. While 1,000 Chicago teachers are getting their pink slips this summer, TFA's on-going agreement with the Chicago Public Schools may provide up to 325 TFA corps members, said an executive director of Teach For America on Tuesday. In a statement on the TFA Chicago website, executive director Josh Anderson wrote, "While it’s true that many of our corps members teach in communities facing a severe shortage of applicants, the demand for corps members from principals and district leaders for their open positions is much broader. ... If principals choose to hire corps members for open roles, the district pays a small portion of what it costs Teach For America to recruit, train and professionally develop those hires."

Similar scenarios have occurred in other cities, such as Las Vegas and Dallas. Nevada's Clark County school district, where 419 teachers (and a total of 1,000 school employees) were laid off this summer, announced last Friday that it will hire 50 TFA publicly-funded teachers and that TFA is covering the cost for 40 more recruits for the district this school year. While New York City threatened to layoff thousands of veteran teacher in 2011 (that were narrowly averted through union concessions), 500 new teachers were being recruited from both TFA and the New York City Teaching Fellows to work in shortage areas. Then there is the odd Dallas Independent School District's cycle of sweeping teacher layoffs in one year (more than 250 in 2012) and urgent hiring the next (Dallas is holding "invitation only" job fairs this summer to hire up to 2,000 new teachers before the 2013-14 school year). But one talent pool that Dallas ISD can rely on to fill its cyclical gaps is TFA recruits, and those recruits will be protected from layoffs in a way that veteran teachers are not.

TFA is also shifting from its original mission to place teachers in public school districts where teachers were desperately needed to now placing about a third of its new teachers in already high-performing, well-financed charter schools. To be fair, in some cases, such as with the school district crisis in Philadelphia this summer (discussed by Danielle Holley-Walker on this blog here), some TFA recruits were among the school layoffs, and the organization had to scramble to reassign them wherever they could. But that is not often the case, and it is certainly not true for TFA's  partnerships with Newark and Baltimore City Schools.

This fall, TFA will cement its new focus in a partnership with Newark, NJ, and Goldman Sachs as TFA teachers prepare to move into Newark's Teachers' Village. The first tenant, the Discovery Charter School, has already moved in. Teachers' Village will have more than 200 apartments and 70,000 square feet of retail space, along with three charter schools, a private preschool, and a day care center. The eight-building, $150 million project is being built largely through public financing, in part by a $39.5 million Urban Transit Hub tax credit, $60 million in federal New Markets tax credits for the school portion, and smaller amounts from city contributions, bonds, and casino revenue. The incentive for private investors such as Goldman Sachs is about $100 million in tax credits. Newark's Teachers' Village joins other affordable housing developments for TFA teachers such as Oxford Mills in Philadelphia and Miller's Court in Baltimore and planned new developments in Washington, D.C. and St. Louis. Essential to these housing developments is the federal New Markets program that allows individual and corporate taxpayers a tax credit for making equity investments in eligible projects.

TFA has grown mightily from humble beginnings 22 years ago to becoming a key player in the free-market reform model of education. As badly as kids in underserved areas need TFA, TFA's new partners need them even more. States have dismissed thousands of teachers, and education reformers have to come up with a cheap, readily-available supply of the most expensive cost of doing business: labor. TFA meets that need by supplying fresh-out-of-school workers who are not looking for longevity, security, or benefits from the school system. (Well, at least not directly.) The movement that is fueling teacher layoffs seem to have little backup plan other than TFA and sources of labor like it. With TFA's newfound (and perhaps well-earned) power among nonprofit education providers, it is certainly doing well. Here's hoping that TFA also remembers its mission to do good.


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