Internal Documents Reveal Charter Expansion, TFA Go Hand in Hand

Broad Foundation emails indicate charter operators reluctant to expand without TFA presence

By Chad Sommer and Jennifer Berkshire
Last weekend, former Newark Star columnist Bob Braun published a bombshell column, arguing that the state-appointed superintendent of Newark, NJ schools, Teach For America (TFA) alum Cami Anderson, wants to waive seniority rules to fire upwards of 700 tenured Newark teachers and replace a percentage of them with TFA recruits. Executive Director of Teach For America New Jersey, Fatimah Burnam Watkins, quickly dismissed Braun’s assertions as *conspiracy theories,* while claiming TFA has a small footprint in Newark.  But the heated back-and-forth misses the larger issue: TFA plays an increasingly essential role in staffing the charters that are rapidly expanding, replacing public schools from Newark to Philadelphia to Chicago to Los Angeles. In fact, newly released documents indicate that many charter operators won’t even consider opening new schools without TFA to provide a supply of *teacher talent.*

TFA a requirement
Emails sent by the Broad Foundation, a leading advocate of market-based education reform and charter expansion, and acquired through a freedom of information request, reveal that many charter management organizations consider TFA presence in a region a necessary prerequisite for opening new schools. According to the documents, charter management organizations including Rocketship, KIPP, Noble, LEARN and Uncommon Schools all indicated that a supply of TFA teachers was a general pre-condition for expanding into a new region. The emails, which detail the Broad Foundation’s failed efforts to lure high-performing charter operators to Detroit, were released as part of a trove of thousands of documents requested as part of an investigation into Michigan’s embattled Education Achievement Authority.

Greetings from the charter state
In New Jersey, where controversial charter expansion plans have been unveiled in Newark and Camden, TFA is likely to play a key role in providing *local talent* to staff new schools. Cami Anderson’s One Newark education reform plan is predicated on 40% of Newark public schools becoming privately managed charter schools by the 2016-2017 school year. Meanwhile in Camden, yet another TFA-alum-turned-state-appointed-superintendent, Paymon Rouhanifard, has begun introducing local residents to the charter operators that will soon be *turning around* their public schools, but without naming the schools to be turned around. [Note: effective in the fall of 2014, TFA corps members in Newark, Camden and Trenton will all be managed under a single entity: TFA New Jersey]. 

Numbers game
In Fatimah Burnam Watkins’ response to Bob Braun’s assertions, she points to the relatively tiny number of TFA corps members employed by the Newark Public Schools: *There are currently 65 TFA teachers in NPS schools (48 in their first year, 17 in their second year.* But as Watkins is no doubt aware, this number leaves out the corps members who are staffing local charter schools. If Newark bears any resemblance to neighboring Philly, the vast majority of corps members are now placed in charter schools—a pattern that is quickly becoming the norm in urban areas across the country. As previously documented on this site here and here, TFA has become an essential source of labor for urban charter schools.  

The ROI of TFA
Watkins also takes issue with Braun’s citing of a *months old* announcement from the Walton Family Foundation, TFA’s single largest funder, regarding a grant to recruit, train and support 370 TFA corps members in New Jersey. But it’s clear that the Walton Foundation, which has provided start-up funding for one out of four charter schools in the US, sees the expansion of TFA as key to its goal of *infusing competitive pressure into local schools systems.* In Los Angeles, the Walton Foundation, which is led by heirs to the Walmart fortune, has pumped millions of dollars into helping charters and TFA expand simultaneously. Last summer Walton gave TFA $20 million, much of it earmarked for the recruitment of 700 new TFA corps members in LA. An additional $4.5 million in start-up funds from Walton will help to open 23 new charter schools in the city. Ninety four percent of TFA corps members in LA last year were place in charter schools. 

The perfect fit
Cities from Newark to Chicago to Los Angeles to Philadelphia suffer from a surplus of experienced—read expensive—teachers. Add in the fact that the solidarity of a union doesn’t sit well with the privatization movement’s financial backers, and temporary, inexpensive Teach For America recruits are the obvious go-to. Anderson’s One Newark vision calls for the rapid expansion of charter schools, and by proxy, the growth of TFA. As Anderson puts it: *Teachers are selected because of their quality and ‘fit’ with the school mission.* If the mission is to drive down teacher pay, bust unions and burn out novice teachers every two years, then TFA is the perfect *fit.*

Chad Sommer was a 2011 TFA corps member and taught 4th grade at Chicago’s Rudyard Kipling Elementary School. Jennifer Berkshire is the creator and editor of EduShyster.

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  1. Great post.

    It is absolutely shocking that Watkins would defend TFA by saying that there are only 65 TFA teachers in NPS, but leaves out the figures for charter schools. I didn’t even realize that was the subtext of her post on until I saw some controversy on twitter.

    How is the public supposed to know that charter schools in Newark are not considered to be part of NPS? Charter school defenders are always making a fuss that charter schools really are public schools, but now they’re not counted as a member of the local public school district? Very slippery definitions.

    Also, the reason for the uproar in Newark is that TFA is working with Cami Anderson and to convert public schools to charter schools, so the fact that TFA would post a blog titled “The Facts about Our Work in Newark,” and totally dodge the issue of charter schools, is completely disingenuous.

    1. Yes, charter schools are ‘public’ when it suits them, and suddenly ‘private’ whenever people ask for specifics. We don’t have to provide that data; we don’t have to respond to open records requests, because we’re not a public institution. Now give us more taxpayer money.

  2. TFA teachers do their “noble” stint and get out, leaving a Walmartized profession in their wake.

  3. Here in Philly, a real estate development will co-locate a charter school and regional TFA headquarters as well as provide below market rate housing for (underpaid TFA/charter school?) teachers:

    This will amount to triple dipping against the public school budget in Philadelphia.

    First, the TFA bounty, likely paid over and over, as the TFAers rotate back to their real lives.

    Second, the charter school penalty, where the School District of Philadelphia doesn’t break even, but loses money when students move to charter schools.

    Third, the city’s real estate tax abatement program will subsidize the property taxes at the cost of the school district budget. Similar to Tax Increment Financing, this is a long standing program available to many residential projects. It keeps property tax rates at the old value for 10 years even after a property is improved or renovated.

    Finally, offering under compensated teachers a discount on housing expenses is moving dangerously close to becoming a ‘company town.’

    Sadly, this all gets glowing articles from the Times to the coupon book they throw on my stoop just a few blocks away from the project. Almost no one is connecting the dots.

    1. digging through that Times article–

      “But for the tax credits, these projects couldn’t happen,”

      I’ll bet.

  4. happy to say that my charter school in Boston eschews TFA corps members, but embraces TFA corps alumni.

    1. Interestingly, I’ve heard the same about certain charters here in Chicago, most notably Noble St-the flagship charter chain. They agree to take small #s of current corps members in order to keep a relationship w/TFA, but are careful not to hire too many. This practice seems especially prevalent in higher-performing charters (test score wise). These schools know current TFAers sub-par first hand as many principals were TFA. Lower performing, less media-friendly charters seem to get the brunt of under-prepared novices. Even the people pushing these policies know experience matters and TFA’s model stinks.

      1. I went through a number of stages of interviews with KIPP in Chicago, and was told by the Principal/Director at the time that it is rare for them to hire a first year TFA CM. This person advised me to do my 2 year TFA commitment somewhere else, and then come back to them if I was still interested in teaching. Can’t blame them for wanting experienced teachers, but this also shows that there is a hierarchy of charter schools. Some are the “training schools” and some are the “high performing” schools. But that’s what you get when you create an education system on competition instead of equity.

        1. Yeah, but we don’t hire any first year teachers unless we trained them through our associate teacher program. It’s not really an anti-TFA thing, per se. We train 20+ associate teachers each year across our 3 schools and many of them are hired to fill our openings and most perform admirably. So I guess I would say that we are a training school AND a high performing school.

          Any teacher we hire from outside the network needs to have 2+ years of experience. That’s always been true, even before TFA was in Boston. Many of these hires, but not all, of them have a TFA background. My wife had TFA on her resume; I did not.

          However, we’ve never had a formal relationship with TFA to keep up, and our network is small enough that we don’t attract attention like Noble St, KIPP or Uncommon.

          I think the bigger issue here is that most charter school networks don’t feel the need to have teachers with experience because their systems and culture, built on the backs of academically accomplished, young, hard working teachers, can help their students achieve success on standardized tests. If you look, though, at the two highest performing networks in Boston (Excel and Brooke), they have a core group of teachers who have been around for many, many years (at least, considering the life span of their schools). I think that’s more rare in the larger chains, in part because many of their young teaches are promoted into administration really quickly because of needs caused by rapid expansion.

  5. Wendy Kopp, the founder of TFA, was on the Board of the Broad Foundation in 2008 when what is unfolding now was developed. The Superintendent of Philadelphia public schools from 2008-2011, Arlene Ackerman, was also on this Broad board. In 2009, she announced her Imagine 2014 program which had one meaning to the public and another to insiders.

    On Saturday, current Philadelphia Superintendent Hite (Broad Superintendent Academy Class of 2005) tweeted: “Welcoming TFA alumni educators from across the country to choose Philly as they consider their career options.”

    About the comment of Executive Director of Teach For America New Jersey, Fatimah Burnam Watkins, who “quickly dismissed Braun’s assertions as *conspiracy theories,” If you have documentation of collaboration and coordination going on, it is not a figment of your imagination. Here is my documentation:

    “Who is Eli Broad and why is he trying to destroy public education”

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