TFA: The International Brotherhood of Corporate Interests

How TFA rigs the teacher hiring process in favor of charter operators

Photo credit: Sarah Jane Rhee of www.loveandstrugglephotos.com

By Chad Sommer
When I joined Teach For America in the spring of 2011 I had no idea that my belief in social and economic justice was about to be cynically exploited by the corporate class. As a former development manager for a nonprofit that serves low-income Chicago public school students, TFA’s claims that its corps members and alumni are helping lead an educational revolution in low-income communities across the country spoke to me. Naively seduced by TFA’s do-gooder marketing pitch, I charged ahead on a mission to close the academic “achievement gapthat TFA blames on incompetent (read unionized) teachers.

Today, having completed the two-year program and seeing how it operates from the inside, I’m convinced that TFA now serves as a critical component of the all-out-effort by corporate elites to privatize one of the last remaining public institutions of our country: our public schools.

Adored by the corporate class
TFA and the privately managed, non-union charter schools that its corps members often staff are adored by the corporate class. Elites shower both TFA and charter schools with private contributions from their own tax-exempt foundations, as well as taxpayer dollars funneled by their courtiers in Washington and statehouses across the country. Goldman Sachs, Wells Fargo, The Walton Foundation (Walmart), The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, The Eli Broad Foundation, and a small army of billionaire hedge fund managers are just a few representatives of the corporate class that bankrolls TFA and the various networks of privately managed (but taxpayer funded) charter schools. Wendy Kopp, founder of TFA is even married to the president of KIPP, one of the country’s largest networks of charter schools.

In Chicago, where I participated in TFA, the organization maintains its own extremely close partnerships with privately managed charter schools. Their relationships are so close, in fact, that earlier this year, after the Chicago Public School system closed forty-nine traditional, unionized public schools, claiming the schools were “underutilized,” it was revealed that TFA was working behind the scenes with a number of privately-managed, non-union charter school operators to open fifty-two new charter schools in Chicago over the next five years.

The alliance between TFA and charter schools is cemented by an arrangement that few people know about outside of the organization. The teacher placement policy of TFA explicitly states in bold letters, “It is our policy that corps 
members accept the first position offered to them.” The effective result of this policy means that corps members have no bargaining position to negotiate wages or benefits, meaning that whatever offer a school makes, the corps member must accept it. TFA provides a rather benign explanation for this arrangement, claiming that it allows for the quick and efficient placement of hundreds of corps members into teaching positions in each market. However, in practice, this mandate is a lynchpin of the corporate class’ privatization plan for education.

The first placement policy
Each spring, local TFA offices in each market dedicate an entire team of staff to arranging interviews between corps members and hiring schools. The “first placement” policy means that TFA can guarantee charter schools a constant supply of new teachers each year who have no choice but to work for wages and benefits far below those negotiated by the local teachers union at traditional public schools in the same area. While a first year salary for a teacher at a traditional unionized school in Chicago is approximately $45,000, the starting salary at many of TFA’s partner charter schools is nearly 30 percent less at $32,000. And because teachers at charter schools are not protected by the due process policies the union has in place at traditional public schools, TFA corps members at charter schools can be fired at any time, for any reason.

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.

Send tips and comments to tips@edushyster.com.

21 Comments

  1. Some Teaching Fellows programs also use a “first placement” policy and require fellows to accept the first job offer they receive.

    A true free market economy requires freedom of choice on both sides of the bargaining table.

  2. I think this might be the finest, most illuminating critique of TFA I’ve read. I hope this is shared and read widely.

  3. […] By Chad Sommer, January 6th, 2014 on Edushyster.com. (Photo credit by Sarah Jane Rhee of loveandstrugglephotos.com).(Selected quote)… "TFA and the privately managed, non-union charter schools that its corps members often staff are adored by the corporate class. Elites shower both TFA and charter schools with private contributions from their own tax-exempt foundations, as well as taxpayer dollars funneled by their courtiers in Washington and statehouses across the country. Goldman Sachs, Wells Fargo, The Walton Foundation (Walmart), The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, The Eli Broad Foundation, and a small army of billionaire hedge fund managers are just a few representatives of the corporate class that bankrolls TFA and the various networks of privately managed (but taxpayer funded) charter schools. Wendy Kopp, founder of TFA is even married to the president of KIPP, one of the country’s largest networks of charter schools.In Chicago, where I participated in TFA, the organization maintains its own extremely close partnerships with privately managed charter schools. Their relationships are so close, in fact, that earlier this year, after the Chicago Public School system closed forty-nine traditional, unionized public schools, claiming the schools were “underutilized,” it was revealed that TFA was working behind the scenes with a number of privately-managed, non-union charter school operators to open fifty-two new charter schools in Chicago over the next five years. The alliance between TFA and charter schools is cemented by an arrangement that few people know about outside of the organization. The teacher placement policy of TFA explicitly states in bold letters, “It is our policy that corps members accept the first position offered to them.” The effective result of this policy means that corps members have no bargaining position to negotiate wages or benefits, meaning that whatever offer a school makes, the corps member must accept it. TFA provides a rather benign explanation for this arrangement, claiming that it allows for the quick and efficient placement of hundreds of corps members into teaching positions in each market. However, in practice, this mandate is a lynchpin of the corporate class’ privatization plan for education."Full post at: http://edushyster.com/?p=3954   […]

  4. While TFA corps members can be exploited, as Chad Sommer elaborates here, chronically under-funded and stressed urban school districts are even bigger victims. What Chad Sommer may not even realize is that, in addition to closing numerous schools such as Rahm Emanuel did in Chicago last summer, school reformers and neo-liberals have been been “turning around” public schools in order to fire countless teachers and administrators of color–this racist policy has been going on in Chicago since the time of Paul Vallas and on through Arne Duncan–and TFA, with its Orwellian message of closing the achievement gap, is a huge beneficiary. Thus, solid jobs that anchor a community are abolished in favor of a revolving-door army of inexperienced and under-qualified labor–mainly rich white kids who have no roots in the communities where they teach. I hope that more TFA corps members speak out about the union-busting and racist community-destroying agenda of TFA, which is vastly worse than performing a low-wage job for which they are not qualified anyway. Check out the growing TFA apostate movement: http://truth-out.org/articles/item/17750-teach-for-america-apostates-a-primer-of-alumni-resistance

    1. Mary G., Thank you for the thoughtful reply to my article. I just want to clarify that the point of my article was NOT about individual TFA corps members being exploited by charter schools. Rather, I wanted to show that this partnership between TFA and the charter schools is damaging to the teaching profession as a whole, as well as the traditional neighborhood school district for the very reasons that you also bring up.

      1. I enjoyed the article, and I agree that looking at this from the point of view of labor and unions is appropriate.
        Since I have been reading so much about TFA and trying to rescind its introduction into my district (because of the destabilizing effects and how it distracts from long-term solutions, teacher retention, and budgets), I may have focused too much on the brief part of your essay dealing with the impact on TFA corps members’ lives.
        The shame culture you mention in another comment is surely real, as are the costs TFAers may incur, but that is why the truth about TFA must be broadcast far and wide.
        It also has to be known that “idealism,” “naivety,” “rescuing poor people of color,” can be a mask for more insidious prejudices (what used to be called the “white man’s burden”), and anyone thinking of joining TFA should take a long, hard look at their motives. Inner cites and rural out-backs in the Mississippi Delta are not zoos. There is a deeply racist vein to Ed Reform, charter schools, and organizations like TFA (fittingly, this charter school movement has found its ideal “face” in Barack Obama–this, too [using people of color to advance racist agendas] has a history.
        As you state, TFA and individual corps members have not created these deep social problems, but they sure are advancing them–especially Wendy Kopp.
        I have met more than a few smug and arrogant TFAers, by the way.

  5. “…who have no choice but to accept their lot.”

    Sorry, but I think you need a 12-step program to accept your own role in the situation. There are always choices. You may not have much choice within the TFA system, but you do have the choice to leave it.

    1. Yep. Love it or leave it. Heaven forbid someone try to make things better by exposing the dark underbelly of a horrible situation.

  6. Dienne, Thank you for reading the article and for providing feedback. While technically you are correct. Recruits may quit. However, in practice TFA and the Charters have a lot of leverage over them. For many of these young TFA recruits, they have incurred, literally, thousands of dollars in “transition” loans from TFA to move to the city that they will teach at. If they quit, they are on the hook to pay back the loans within 30 days. Additionally, they have upended their lives, moved to a new city, and are committed to teaching. Furthermore, there is a huge psychological shame culture within TFA focused on shaming people who quit. Here’s a recent blog post that addresses the shame issue. http://cloakinginequity.com/2013/12/29/tell-all-from-a-tfa-and-kipp-teacher-unprepared-isolation-shame-and-burnout/

    1. Yes, abused women have much invested in their relationship with their abuser. They have a lot to lose. And there are tons of psychological issues, including shame, which make it difficult for them to leave. Nonetheless, it is imperative that they do leave and they must take responsibility for doing so themselves – no one is going to rescue them.

      So maybe not a 12-step program. Maybe an abuse support group.

  7. I’m interested whether or not you have conclusive proof as to this “rigging of the labor market” you reference. I’m a 2011 corps member myself in Memphis and I found that interviews were random between charters and non-charters. True, charters often were the first to contact my fellow corps members, but that was more due to the fact that often times traditional schools didn’t know their labor needs until the beginning of June. I have a very hard time believing that TFA is actively rigging interviews to prioritize charters in general.

    That said, I do see a problem with the way charters use TFA teachers. I know of several charters locally that would likely be closed down were it not for teach for america teachers. But this is because TFA is available and they know if they interview and offer a job to a TFA teacher, that teacher must take it. The problem then, isn’t Teach for America, but the fact that we allow these charters to stay open at all.

  8. It should also be noted that first year teachers in traditional public schools trained through traditional means also do not have “leverage” or the ability to “bargain” for wages. Those are set in contracts that have little to do with the individual job applicant.

    TFA teachers have the same ability non-TFA teachers have… say no to the job and find something else to do.

    1. Nola7015, Thank you for reading the article and for providing feedback. Teachers from regular education programs are not required to take the first position offered. They can turn down any position if they choose for any reason. They could also negotiate salary and benefits at a charter school because charters are not usually subject to the local union contract. TFA participants cannot. TFA must accept what is offered. This creates a perverse incentive for charter operators to offer ALL teachers extremely low salaries because the charter operators knows they can fill the positions with a TFA participant. All the charter operator has to do is call the local TFA office and tell them to send over a TFA participant. That participant MUST take the job. While technically you are correct. TFA participants may quit the TFA program. However, for most of these young TFA participants, they have incurred THOUSANDS of dollars in “transition loans” from TFA to move to the city that they were assigned to teach in. If they quit, they are responsible for paying back the loans to TFA within 30 days. They would then be jobless in a region that they had no interest in living in if it weren’t for TFA. Furthermore, there is a huge psychological shame culture within TFA focused on shaming people who quit. Here’s a recent blog post that addresses the shame issue. http://cloakinginequity.com/2013/12/29/tell-all-from-a-tfa-and-kipp-teacher-unprepared-isolation-shame-and-burnout/

  9. I thoroughly appreciate this article. The young people who join the ranks of TFA are, in my experience, wonderful. As a veteran teacher I thoroughly enjoy them. I feel conflicted because the program is not being implemented in the manner in which it was purported to be intended. This is in no way the fault of the recruits. They are abused and misused in many situations. They have been indoctrinate to believe, in general, that veteran teachers are at best a problem. However, these are not stupid people. It has been my experience that the recruits soon know the score.
    In response to those who advise recruits to just quit, for the very reasons that these recruits were attracted to the TFA program in the first place, idealism and altruism, they are very unlikely to quit on the students and their fellow professionals. Teachers do not just quit and walk away in the middle of the school year.

  10. While these tfa members are young, that is no excuse to view all veteran teachers as a problem. If tfaers are so intelligent and pure of heart, then voraciously consume all information on education reform, pro and con, before judging any veteran teachers This is essential to an academic on any level to fully understand all side of any argument Extraordinary intelligence does not trump the truth or the scam that is ed reform and predatory capitalism.

    Both agendas are pushed by financially, predatory capitalist corporations. Who no doubt want a cowed, controlled populace. That is why I also like to refer to corporations as whoreporations from time to time.

    I am from Chicago and my lady and me are among the more than five thousand teachers let go unjustly in the last five years. That also does not include the support staff let go in that same time frame. My lady was told in 2010, by her newly hired lying principal, Joseph Shoffner, that after twenty-one plus years of teaching. she had suddenly forgotten how to teach. This occurred at McClellan Elementary on the South Side.

    My lady was also informed by Gram Hill, Chicago Teachers Union attorney, that he didn’t want to see her performance evaluations. They were all excellent or superior. He didn’t want to see anything that would disprove the lies perpetrated by this putrid excuse for a human being. The deck is stacked against the teachers and for lying house slaves for the data principals like Shoffner. Hill also informed or bragged to my lady that he has had 350 cases of teacher dismissals or E-3’s and had won only 2 cases. So the chicago teachers union was about as helpful as the Aids virus to a hemophiliac.This discussion occurred in January, 2012. She was forced to retire in April, 2012.

    Please don’t anyone speak in sanctimonious reverence about the sellout contract negociated by karen lewis with that lying, thieving mayor emanulie. Everything unjust that has been used in last five years to destroy the lives of good, veteran teachers is now simply a matter of policy. I would call out as a liar, to their face, anyone who would dispute my claim of injustice against teachers in Chicago and across the state of Illinois.

    Our house slaves in the state legislature voted on December, 3rd, 2013 for bogus pension reform because of underfunded state pensions. Underfunded because of pension contribution holidays the state requested. Deforms, as I like to them, include 401K bullshit and the elimination of defined pensions.and raising the retirement age.

    Conversely, tfaers and all others who chose to assist in placing the blame on all public school teachers who choose not to embrace the lies perpetrated against them, while holding administrators blameless, are the poster children for a new movement I am launching today.

    Identify the Sycophants a.k.a. the Kissasses for the Massa The purpose is identify and ridicule all who insult your intelligence or grasp of the facts that are not part of the lamestream media reporting. I am simply advocating that all public school teachers not turned into the “The Stepford Wives,” calling out these charlatans at every opportunity. No rest for the wicked. If violence is used against you, meet it with an equal or greater amount of justified violence in kind. Freedom of speech is absolute as long as one is on the side of truthful righteousness.

  11. It’s ironic Chad accuses TFA of serving “corporate interests” and has suddenly assumed the mantle of a class warrior. Not too long ago, he apparently didn’t have a such strong beliefs when he was crafting advertising and marketing propaganda for some of the lowest forms of corporate scum around – Big Tobacco and Big Booze – which ethically speaking is a notch or two below clubbing baby seals for a living. Given his background, I can’t help but believe Chad’s sudden people-power persona is little more than the superficial personal rebranding of a long-time corporate ad-man.

    1. First, I would respect your criticism much more if you didn’t write anonymously. I signed my name to my article. Second, many people take available jobs in their younger years to pay the bills that might not completely reconcile with their personally beliefs. Third, what you fail to mention as you try to “expose” me through my resume, is that my brand marketing experience led to a career in NONPROFIT development and marketing at a major social service agency in Chicago that provides counseling and after school programs for low-income at-risk Chicago public school students. I worked there for many years prior to joining TFA. Finally, your comment has nothing to do with the important issues that I raise in my article.

  12. The scorn directed at veteran teachers reminds me of the scorn directed at older workers here in Silicon Valley. There is no place for the old in this beautifully Darwinian system –unless they work ever harder as they age and settle for peanuts.

Comments are closed.