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East Bay DSA

February 18, 2019

Scab or starve: Teach for America wants its participants to cross picket lines. TFA teachers are fighting back.

By Sandy Barnard

“As a new teacher I received so much support, time, and energy from veteran teachers. I don’t want to betray people who have supported me, who just want to be paid for the work they do.” – Oakland TFA participant

Teach for America offered its participants working in Oakland schools a stark choice this week: scab or starve. In an email sent Feb. 6, Teach for America (TFA) announced that if corps members choose to support Oakland teachers in the upcoming strike by not crossing picket lines, TFA participants will not receive their stipends from AmeriCorps, TFA’s parent organization.

While many TFA participants are driven by a genuine desire to address inequality in public education, this announcement by TFA’s leaders proves what we already knew: TFA as an institution, driven by its conservative billionaire backers, is committed to weakening public education and ushering in a new era of anti-democratic, privatized education.

In response to the ruling from the top, current and former TFA participants wrote two letters requesting that TFA and AmeriCorps not punish any program participants for showing solidarity with striking teachers. The letters demand that TFA “[recognize] corps member obligation to stand in solidarity with their colleagues, school community, and advocates for fully funding public education” by not crossing the pickets.

As the Oakland community becomes more heavily involved with strike preparations and shows of solidarity, scabbing teachers will face rising pressures. Not only are teachers who cross picket lines hurting their own profession, but they will alienate themselves from the community whom they teach. We should not pity those who scab by choice, but when TFA forces teachers to scab, its program participants are isolated and the school community divided.

TFA and the Oakland Fight

Teach for America has about 70 participants in Oakland, at both public and charter schools. After a downsizing last year, it got new program staff who seem confused about participants’ rights concerning the strike.

According to an email sent from TFA staff on Jan. 16, “If you would like to participate in a strike or protest, you must use your personal days, and there will be no effect on your AmeriCorps [grant] or TFA status.” But according to their current contract, Oakland teachers may not use more than two personal days in a row without a doctor’s note; recent strikes in LA and West Virginia have lasted far longer than two days. Whether TFA’s advice was malicious and intended to get teachers in trouble for participating in the strike, or simply reflects ignorance of the contract, is unknown.

In another email, dated Feb. 6, TFA issued a correction. It now says that there are two options: cross the picket line, or exit the program early. Not only are many TFA participants financially reliant on the program grant, but TFA assists with teaching credentials and job placement. Anyone who wishes to continue teaching after this year relies on the program for career advancement. TFA’s message to its teachers is: scab, or face the consequences.

“I need a better contract too,” a TFA teacher at Oakland High School said when asked why this fight is so important. “We’re young, and we’re still trying to figure out if we’re going to remain teaching in Oakland long term. It’s hard to justify staying when we are paid so much worse than every other district in the Bay.”

High rents and low wages mean that many young would-be teachers are unable to decide for themselves whether to continue teaching or not, but the decision is made for them. As a result, students suffer. “A successful strike would mean that veteran teachers stay in Oakland and can support students better. The high turnover doesn’t help anyone.”

Although the program would never admit it, the TFA training model (participants are trained for just six weeks before placement in a classroom) is entirely inadequate and participants’ real education often comes from informal mentorship by veteran teachers at their sites. “I was so unprepared on my first day,” the TFA teacher said, “and I got so much support from other teachers. Not only are veteran teachers better at teaching students, they are better at teaching TFA participants how to teach.” Because of these mentoring relationships, there is a tight-knit community among teachers at Oakland High, which facilitated actions like the wildcat sick-out in December and other militant activities. Now, participation in union actions may seriously threaten those who are in TFA.

Luckily, both current and former TFA members are standing up. The letter from alumni has over 400 signatories and counting, and it went live on Monday. (If you are an alum of TFA, you can sign on here.) Current TFA teachers in Oakland are negotiating with the program to allow them to participate in the strike. The risks of participating are real. However, the alternative is that wages stay low, class sizes stay high, and Oakland schools suffer.

Workers hold immense power; without workers nothing is produced, no profit is made, and no children are taught. TFA participants are workers in two respects — the Oakland Unified School District and Teach for America both rely on them to function. TFA is trying to silence the political voice of its Oakland teachers, but the teachers are fighting back against school districts and neoliberal job agencies alike.

A Brief History of Teach for America

Teach for America is a nonprofit founded in 1989 to recruit good teachers to “underprivileged” school districts, in exchange for some student loan forgiveness for participants. It’s a brilliant win-win in theory, but many criticisms of the program exist for a reason. TFA gives participants only six weeks of training before putting them in a classroom. That is not enough time to learn to teach, especially for high-need classrooms. TFA is a popular staffing choice for charter schools, as its teachers are traditionally cheaper and more open to “innovative” teaching strategies (like the “drill and kill” approach that produces temporary test score gains at the expense of critical thinking).

Many teachers in the program come from expensive Ivy League schools and privileged backgrounds completely unlike those of the children they teach, and are given few supports for connecting to the communities they work in. Teachers in the program burn out so quickly that many teach for only a few years, then leave the classroom to work in the nonprofit world. In this system, high-need students have a constant cycle of new teachers; none stay long enough to become experienced in the classroom or form the kind of lasting relationships that help students thrive.

Worst of all, TFA exists to union-bust. In New Orleans and Chicago particularly, school districts lay off veteran unionized teachers to replace with a cycle of new recruits who never stay long enough to become active in their unions. Kenzo Shibata writes that “thousands of experienced educators are replaced with hundreds of college graduates” when TFA takes over a school district. More experienced teachers perform better in the classroom, but they are more expensive and disproportionately unionized. When school districts are run in the service of corporate interests, rather than for the education of children, there is a strong incentive to fire these militant union teachers and replace them with educators working for stipends and debt forgiveness.

As with many suspect nonprofits, TFA’s funding streams provide insight into its true aims. The Walton Family Foundation (the heirs to Walmart, donors to right-wing think tanks, and notorious union-busters) gave $50 million to TFA in 2015. Charter school shill Eli Broad donated $25 million to the program in 2011. The Broad Foundation, which quite literally wrote the book on school closings and charter takeovers, has spent years pushing Oakland into a portfolio model and investing in charter schools. If the Broad Foundation is investing in an education program, it is fair to assume that the program is not designed in the interests of students.

Many of the educators participating in Teach for America are dedicated to their students and made what they thought was the best decision for their careers. The problems with TFA are not the fault of individuals participating in the program. However, no one can be surprised when the program writ large does not respect union rights. That’s its entire business model.

Note: This article was edited to clarify that TFA participants receive stipends from AmeriCorps, not TFA.