Teach for America Agenda Advanced by Four Alumni Seeking APS Seats (UPDATE 1)
(APN) ATLANTA — It is likely no coincidence that four candidates for Atlanta Public Schools (APS) Board of Education (BOE) are alumni of Teach for America (TFA), including three newcomers and one incumbent who himself is fairly new to the Board. In fact, TFA has been pushing its alumni to run for office since at least 2008, in order to promote the organization’s apparent pro-privatization agenda.
Criticism of TFA has ramped up in recent years. Last month, in July 2013, a national progressive educational policy reform conference, Free Minds, Free People, held in Chicago, Illinois, included a panel that is believed to be the first-ever national gathering in opposition to TFA. The panel, attended by about one hundred activists, was called Organizing Resistance to Teach for America and its Role in Privatization.
Incumbent Courtney English (at-large Seat 7) is a TFA alum. So is Matt Westmoreland, who is running unopposed for the District 3 seat being vacated by Cecily Harsch-Kinnane.
So is Eshe Collins, who is running for the District 6 seat being vacated by Yolanda Johnson; as well as Jason Esteves, who is running for the at-large Seat 9 being vacated by Emmett Johnson. However, neither Collins nor Esteves mention TFA in their extensive campaign biographies which appear on their respective websites.
Overall, the four are a largely pro-charter school group. If all four are elected, TFA alumni will constitute a near-majority voting bloc on the BOE.
So, what does this mean for APS, and how might a TFA voting bloc impact educational policy for APS teachers, parents, students, and other stakeholders?
“The first thing is, it’s not surprising you have so many TFA alum running for the School Board.
TFA alums are everywhere but the classroom. Their turnover rate, after three or four years, is around eighty percent,” Julian Vasquez Heilig, an Associate Professor of Educational Policy and Planning at the University of Texas at Austin, and author of the Cloaking Inequality blog, told Atlanta Progressive News.
“It’s a revolving door of temporary labor. It [TFA] perpetuates inequality in teacher quality,” he said.
“It empowers districts to continue a revolving of rookie teachers. What TFA will argue is their five weeks of training in the summer is adequate for their teachers,” he said.
“In recent years, they’ve aligned themselves with the corporate reformer movement. That means vouchers, charter schools, parent trigger, anti-union,” he said.
“You see the Teach for America alum leading out in this movement to corporatize education. What that means, take education out of the public space. They [charter schools] are no longer democratically controlled,” he said.
“What TFA has done over the last few years, is aligned themselves with a variety of faces in the reform movement that are taking democratic control away from communities, and they seek to privatize many functions,” he said.
“The voters have to decide if they like what TFA is selling. If the public is happy with the temporary tourist approach to education, then they’re the right choice,” he said.
In 2008, TFA spun off an organization called Leadership for Educational Equity (LEE). In addition to helping launch TFA alumni into positions of elected office, LEE also helps communities form their own organizations to address education policy issues.
One such organization, Families Empowered, has as its slogan, “Empowering Families through School Choice.” That means charter schools.
Another such organization, Students First, was founded by former TFA alumnus, Michelle Rhee, the anti-teachers union, pro-privatization national guru.
Another such organization, Mississippi First, also promotes charter schools.
LEE is not very transparent; the vast majority of its website, for example, is restricted to members only.
“TFA is perceived as a major player in the education wars over the future of public schools, and a key ally of those who disparage teacher unions and schools of education, and who are enamored of entrepreneurial reforms that bolster the privatization of a once-sacred public responsibility,” Barbara Miner wrote in a 2010 article for Rethinking Schools.
TFA’s major contributors include the Walton Family Foundation, a major driving force of privatization of public schools including the advent of charter schools. The foundation has given over one hundred million dollars to TFA.
In 2008, the Doris and Donald Fisher Fund–another promoter of privatization and deregulation–was listed as contributing 2.5 million to dollars to TFA.
The Monsanto Fund also gave TFA one million dollars in 2008.
According to a 2012 Reuters article, TFA sent placed some thirty-three percent of its recruits in charter schools in 2011.
Critics told Reuters “the charters with the strongest academic results often have vastly more resources than neighborhood schools, thanks to deep-pocketed donors. They serve predominantly low-income kids, but as a whole their populations tend to be less disadvantaged and more motivated. When these charter students ring up good test scores, nearby public schools look increasingly bad by comparison, which can feed momentum to shut them down, fire their teachers, or turn them over to private management.”
Michael Fiorillo, a teacher and union activist in New York, told Reuters that TFA recruits “are being used as shock troops to privatize public education.”
When the Orleans Parish School System in Louisiana illegally fired nearly all of its teachers in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and moved to a nearly-all charter school model, TFA provided many of the instructors. TFA alumnus Sarah Usdin helped launch several open-enrollment charter schools there.
TFA alumni serve as principals at scores of charter schools. TFA alumni have also founded some of the largest charter schools and for-profit charter schools management organizations, including KIPP schools [founded by TFA alumni Mike Feinberg and David Levin], IDEA charters, YES prep, and Rocketship Charters.
For example, TFA alumnus Eric Thomas founded Rauner College Prep, a charter school in Chicago, Illinois. And TFA alumnus Zeke Vanderhoek founded the Equity Project, a charter school in New York.
But at least two of the APS candidates who are TFA alumni claim that, even if all four of them are elected this November, it does not necessarily mean that the APS BOE will become even more pro-privatization than it already is.
Esteves admits he has received campaign advice and training from LEE, but that neither TFA nor LEE played a role in his deciding to run for office.
“I think for me TFA itself has had no bearing on my wanting to run or getting into any race. The same thing with LEE,” Esteves told Atlanta Progressive News.
“As you can recall, I ran a year ago for a State House seat [House District 53]. Education was my main platform then, but that comes from my teaching experience,” Esteves said.
“My experience teaching in the classroom really impacted my outlook on life, and made me realize there are a lot of things that needed to be done policywise,” he said.
“That itself had nothing to do with TFA or any other organization. I would’ve had that experience if I had taught through an APS program or any other program,” he said.
“LEE has provided me with support in terms of campaign advice, but that’s been after the fact,” he said.
“There’s been no advice on messaging or policy [from LEE]. I haven’t filled out a questionnaire for LEE – there is no questionnaire to my knowledge,” he said.
In a 2012 questionnaire for APN for his run for the Democratic nomination for State House District 53, Esteves indicated his strong support for charter schools.
“I’m supportive of great schools and great public schools. So there are great traditional public schools. There are great charter schools. There are poor charter schools just as there are poor traditional schools,” Esteves said.
“The ideas for how to save our public system vary between TFA corp members and alums just like everywhere else,” he said.
“I understand the concern, but I really hope it’s also highlighted there are several TFA alums who are strong union supporters – just because you went through TFA doesn’t mean you have the same position on every issue.
“I have friends who are TFA alum who are avid charter school opponents; that is not uncommon,” he said.
When asked if Esteves considers himself a strong union supporter, he did not directly respond.
“I consider myself a strong teacher supporter. We can’t have a strong school system without our teachers being empowered,” Esteves said.
Esteves noted that pro-charter groups including Federation for Children and Students First supported incumbent State Rep. Sheila Jones (D-Atlanta) in the 2012 HD 53 race over Esteves. However, that does not necessarily mean the organizations deemed him to be anti-charter; often organizations will support incumbents who support their positions, even if their opponents also do so.
Westmoreland, in an earlier interview, indicated his strong and un-nuanced support for charter schools.
Like Esteves, he said in an interview today that he had received support and training from LEE, but that neither TFA nor LEE had encouraged him to run.
Westmoreland said he did not have any other agenda besides better choices for children in their lives, nor does he know of anyone else having such an agenda.
Collins did not return a voicemail seeking comment.
UPDATE 1: In a previous version of this article, APN stated that Esteves expressed support for the 2012 statewide referendum on a constitutional amendment purporting to give a state commission authority to override local and state board decisions regarding whether to open a charter school. In fact, Esteves stated in the questionnaire that he did not support the question presented in the referendum. No one requested this correction; APN noticed it upon further research it and regrets the error.