Sep 1 2010

Teach for America’s Opaque Agenda

Journalist Barbara Miner confronts a media darling

Photo Credit: Teach For America

Photo Credit: Teach For America

Teach for America is Exhibit A for the corporate media’s notion that an army of talented teachers stands waiting to take on the most difficult schools—if only the unions would get out of the way. The Peace Corps-modeled project in which college graduates do two-year stints in low-income schools has been a feel-good media topic since the group’s 1990 founding by young Princeton grad Wendy Kopp. But where does TFA really fit in the debate over education reform? What happens when reporters try to find out?

In an interview with CounterSpin (4/16/10), Barbara Miner of Rethinking Schools differentiated between Teach for America recruits, whom she described as “by and large hardworking, great kids, a little bit idealistic,” and the national organization, which she found surprisingly opaque when she attempted to do an in-depth story (Rethinking Schools, Spring 2010). Asked to send clippings to the group’s media contact person, Miner was then told TFA would be of no assistance:

And I of course was flabbergasted and I said, what do you mean you can’t help? I did the right thing, I wanted to go through the media office, and now you’re saying no, you can’t help me? This is crazy—you guys help journalists, bend over backwards; you’ve had articles in the [New York] Times, Newsweek, Good Morning America, Readers Digest. So we sent out an email on the Rethinking Schools listserv that night, basically saying, listen, we want to talk to Teach for America people…. But Teach for America won’t help us. Can you contact us if you work with or are in Teach for America?Well, interestingly, the very next morning I get this call from the national communications person—so, so sorry there’s been a mistake, and she was going to help. And they were very helpful. Until at a certain point, they didn’t like some of the questions I was asking. It was sort of like, well, if we like what you’re asking, we’ll help, and if we don’t we won’t.

Despite the amount of (largely uncritical) coverage the group receives, placing TFA in the national debate about education reform can be difficult. They receive huge support from major corporations and from foundations that are involved in pro-market approaches to education (TeachFor, but the group’s more politically oriented offshoots fly under the radar. One of these, Miner told CounterSpin, is called Leadership for Educational Equity.

Teach for America makes clear that Leadership for Educational Equity is essential to their strategic goal, which they argue is shaping the country’s education policy agenda. [Yet] I have not found a single media article on Leadership for Educational Equity, and when I asked their staff person, “Well, have the media written about you?” she says, “Well, no.” And, again, I was just flabbergasted.But, you know, Leadership for Educational Equity is not particularly open or transparent about what they’re trying to do. I mean, they have a website, but you can’t access their website without a login. I asked for a login, I said, just to get a sense of what your organization’s about. They refused. I asked for their IRS documents, because they’re tax-exempt….I asked for those in early November; we have yet to receive those IRS documents, which by law are supposed to be handed over within 30 days. We had to hire a lawyer; our lawyer called Teach for America and Leadership for Educational Equity. They returned one phone call and then stopped returning phone calls.So we had to file a complaint with the IRS, which is now in the IRS bureaucracy. I’m not quite sure what will happen to it, but here’s an organization that argues for transparency in public policy and boy, damned if I could find out hardly anything about them that was public. And even more flabbergasting, it appears I was the first media person to even ask about what they’re about.

So is TFA a group that has a clear political agenda, or is it a well-intentioned project that has just made common cause with powerful corporate interests in the debate over education? Says Miner:

That is a very important question, and I think it’s a little bit the elephant in the room….What is clear is that they themselves say they want to affect educational policy. They’re very clear about that. But if you’re going to affect policy, then you have to at some point explain, well, what is your policy? Because if you don’t, then it raises the concern that, well, are you doing this all behind the scenes? And if it’s behind the scenes, then it’s not really a public discussion about public policy. It’s an important question that no one seems to be really asking.