Teach for America Splits the Multiculti Left

Jane Weir, American Renaissance, February 6, 2015

Slapping on an Obama sticker may no longer be enough.

One day a headhunter in New York phoned me up to sell me a back-office job at an outfit called Teach for America. My first reaction was to gag. My knowledge of the organization was sketchy, but what I knew was not enticing.

To all appearances, Teach for America is a non-profit that works for “minority uplift.” Its talking points are mainly bad public schools, “disadvantaged children of color,” progressive public-education policy, etc. In its mission to improve public-school teaching, it recruits newly minted college graduates, gives them five weeks of summer training, and sends them off with a two-year commitment to teach in the slums (or as TfA like to call them, “America”). And, not incidentally, it has an annual revenue of over $300 million, most of which ($262 million in 2013) comes from corporate donations–Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, etc.–and government grants.

Its public face is rather dull and “politically correct,” but dig deeper and you find the TfA story is intriguing. Over the past couple of years it’s been the subject of increasing attacks from “progressive” groups and the radical Left. These critics include The Nation, Salon, columnists at the Harvard Crimson and Washington Post, Obama pal Bill Ayers, and the Chicago Teachers Union. And then there’s a curious-sounding campus activist group called United Students Against Sweatshops, which is trying to ban TfA from recruitment at Harvard, Vanderbilt, and dozens of other universities.

According to these opponents and critics, Teach for America is basically a “fraud,” a scam, a phony left-liberal organization that uses race and educational concerns as a pretext for getting donations and government grants, while its real agenda is to provide its executives and alumni with well-paid, high-profile jobs as lobbyists, politicians and public-policy advocates.

This accusation might not raise an eyebrow among race-realists–aren’t all liberal programs that focus on race and public schools basically fraudulent? But this sustained attack on TfA isn’t coming from conservatives; it’s coming from leftist activists. Somewhat melodramatically, The American Prospect has called this battle against TfA and public-school privatization “America’s New Civil War.”

Some of these attacks have hit home. According to the Washington Post blog, school boards and state governments are starting to cut their ties to the non-profit. TfA applications by college seniors are down by about 25 percent (26,000 applying for about 5,800 new slots in 2012). According to that same Post column, TfA is also concerned about declining applicant quality.

Teach for America now finds itself at the center of what may be an important debate about what it means to be authentically “progressive” on race. To put it another way, we could well be witnessing a breakup in the liberal consensus about race-politics that goes back at least to the Great Society years. It may no longer be enough to parrot the right phrases. “Progressives” are demanding results of a kind that could sober up an awful lot of Champagne liberals.

Lying with statistics

But don’t cry for TfA. Take a look at its promotional materials (particularly the website, teachforamerica.org) and have a nice laugh. What you see is a veritable parody of the liberal race/poverty narrative of the past five or six decades: lots of pictures of cheerful, needy colored children; blurbs about poverty and education; and touching stories about the bright young college students that TfA recruits who teach for two years in poor, nonwhite school districts.

Readers of a certain age may find the whole TfA pitch reminiscent of the 1960s television promotional spots for Head Start, or perhaps Bob Hope’s long-running spot for the Peace Corps. The basic “hook” remains the same: Western, white guilt, coupled with a plea for charitable donations and/or a couple of years of your time, to help make the world a better place for the underserved, underprivileged nonwhite millions. TfA even calls its recruits “corps members.”

TfA wants you to think it’s a very effective charity, and tells you again and again that it has a plan for ending nonwhite poverty (better teachers, better education). But its statistics are often irrelevant or just plain fudged. For example, the TfA website treats us to a bar graph for the New Orleans school district–which is now largely run by TfA–that shows “basic competency” among New Orleans grade-school students increased about 70 percent (that is, from 30 percent to 53 percent) between 2000 and 2010.

Of course, something else besides TfA happened during those ten years, most notably Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. After Katrina, the black population of New Orleans dropped from 67 percent to 60 percent. New Orleans test scores would have gone up simply because of this change.

Something else that no doubt affected test scores even more was the decision by the state of Louisiana summarily to discharge about 7,500 teachers and school employees, most of them black. The entire New Orleans public-school system was shuttered and replaced with a new TfA-directed system of charter schools, staffed in part by about 1,000 TfA alumni and corps members.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in 2010 that Katrina was “the best thing that happened” to New Orleans schools, because “that education system was a disaster” before the hurricane. TfA, which now essentially runs the New Orleans charter-school system, is happy to take most of the credit for improvements that came simply from clearing out all the deadwood.

Another TfA-associated school system is the one in Washington, DC. There, schools chancellor and TfA alumna Michelle Rhee was said to have raised math proficiency from 10 percent to 58 percent. Miss Rhee arranged this partly by replacing the worst-performing teachers with new TfA recruits, and partly by offering teachers an $8,000 bonus if they got high test scores. Some teachers, most notably at schools that had been touted and feted as models, corrected their students’ test papers before handing them in. According to a PBS Frontline documentary, there is strong evidence that Miss Rhee knew about the cheating and looked the other way.

“A Scab Temp Agency”

It’s race, though, not charter schools or the “privatization” of public school systems, that really drives the antagonism toward TfA. Without race it would probably pass muster as just another “progressive” boondoggle.

The repeated complaint is that it displaces veteran public school teachers–most of them black and “inner-city”–with young, white, middle-class, inexperienced short-termers who are looking to put an interesting notch on their résumés. Something called the Black Agenda Report calls TfA a “Scab Temp Agency.” (Or, as a prospective TfA corps member told her recruiter in New Orleans, “Honestly, this seems really racist to me.”)

Such accusations have lurked in the background, but they came to the fore most resoundingly in the aftermath of the September 2012 Chicago teachers’ strike. In late 2012 and early 2013, the Chicago Board of Education voted to shut down 49 public schools and replace them with charter schools. It fired 2,000 teachers and other employees of the school district and voted to bring in an additional 325 TfA recruits for a total of 600 TfA teachers, mainly at charter schools.

It was about this time that ex-Weatherman Bill Ayers started denouncing TfA as a “fraud,” and dismissing its two-year-hitch teachers as “educational tourists.”

Where the money goes

TfA does not send its teachers to just any school district that wants them. The Chicago school system paid $1.6 million for those 600 amateur teachers, and that doesn’t even cover their salaries, training or operational overhead. That money went straight to TfA as a finder’s fee of about $3,000 per head. Some locales pay TfA a lot more, as much as $10,000 each to get teachers.

Now, given that TfA runs through $300 million a year, you might suppose that a good deal of this is going to pay their “corps” teacher salaries, but you would be wrong. The teachers are paid by the local school districts, out of the local tax revenues, just like the other teachers in the district. (“As a corps member, you will be a full-time, salaried employee of your school district,” says the TfA site. “Your salary and benefits will be the same as other beginning teachers in that district.”)

So where does all that TfA money go? Most ($251 million) of it goes for salaries, officer compensation, overhead expenses, “Travel,” “Fundraising,” and “Other,” according to the 2013 Form 990 filing. These are murky categories with little detail. What we do know are the salaries of the top officers, and these are very generous for a non-profit. Founder/CEO Wendy Kopp made $447,528 in 2013, while the company’s fourteen other corporate officers earned an average of $240,000 each.

A slightly clearer picture of the expense breakdown appeared in the Washington Post blog in 2013, courtesy of a TfA alumnus named Matt Barnum. Mr. Barnum described the main items in the TfA budget as:

  • Corps member development–39 percent
  • Recruitment and selecting corps members–18 percent
  • Institute training–17 percent
  • Management and general expenses–9 percent
  • Alumni support–8 percent

“Institute training” here means the four or five weeks of teacher training given to new corps members (not particularly useful, in Mr. Barnum’s opinion).

“Corps member development” is a broader, slushier category, and seems to encompass the online support for TfA members, as well as conferences, lobbying, and grants to individuals and organizations. TfA discloses lobbying expenses of a bit over a half-million dollars for 2013, for pressing state legislators and Congressmen to fund appropriations for TfA.

One of the organization’s most important lobbying successes is to have persuaded Congress to jigger the No Child Left Behind Act in favor of its recruits. NCLB requires that all the new teachers schools hire be “highly qualified,” and TfA pushed through a special exemption for “corps members” so they can be called “highly qualified” even though they have no teaching credentials and never taught a day in their lives.

But when you add up all of TfA’s slushy expenses ($300,000,000 in 2013) and divide by the number of teachers it recruited and trained for a few weeks (6,000 in 2013) it means that $50,000 per head has been swallowed up before these greenhorns even set foot in a classroom.

“We’re not a teaching organization”

Like the Peace Corps, TfA pushes the idea that its recruits are idealists who will save the world. The cynical view of the Peace Corps was always that it gives young whites a chance to live overseas, maybe learn a foreign language, and put off growing up for a few years–and that an English major from Bryn Mawr couldn’t actually do much for Paraguay or Burundi.

TfA corps members may or may not do their students much good, but it could be a better deal than the Peace Corps. With the experience and connections you get through TfA, you are supposed to get into the law school or B-school of your choice. That’s the recruiters’ sales pitch, anyway. “Or maybe you’d like to walk right into a fast-track job at Goldman Sachs–lots of Corps members do it!” TfA promoters talk about Goldman Sachs a lot. You won’t get that from the Peace Corps.

Arguably, Teach for America was never really about teaching anyway. Its professed concern with poor, under-educated minorities may have been a convenient pretext for giving founder Wendy Kopp and her friends a well-paid platform to influence policy and to help middle-class whites fluff up their CVs. “We’re a leadership development organization, not a teaching organization,” Miss Kopp famously said of TfA in a much-quoted 2011 radio interview.

TfA’s future may lie mainly in “corps member development,” which appears to cover TfA’s support for its subsidiary foundation, Leadership for Educational Equity. LEE has been around at least since 2008, and offers “advocacy and policy” seminars that train TfA members in public relations and lobbying. A couple of the anti-TfA websites, publicschoolshakedown.org and cloakinginequity.com, speculate that LEE is in fact the future-model TfA. They predict that Teach for America could soon “morph” into Leadership for Educational Equity, now that the activities of its “teaching” charity have come under such heavy attack. But if TfA/LEE does indeed reposition itself as a “leadership development” outfit, focused mainly on lobbying and public relations, what will it be lobbying for?

The important question for race realists is whether TfA’s travails mark a turning point in what it takes to be “progressive.” It may no longer be enough to show colored faces and talk about inclusiveness and hope and commitment and pushing the multicultural agenda. No more slapping on an Obama sticker to show you’re down with the lefties and the boys in the hood.

It may be that from now on, folks who want real street-cred will need more than the right slogans. They may have to commit to the whole program: race replacement, culture distortion, and national suicide.

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Jane Weir
Jane Weir is a former journalist and current (unpublished) novelist now living in New York City. She has been published in Punch, The Spectator, Food & Wine, and San Diego Home-Garden Lifestyles.
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