by Zach Cunningham
In 2010 I moved to Helena, Arkansas to serve as a Teach for America corps member. Two years prior I had worked as a field organizer for the Obama campaign, and I wanted to find a way to make a difference outside the confines of electoral politics. I was drawn to TFA because of its oft-quoted call for “all children to receive an excellent education.” It was a travesty, they argued both through literature and on-campus recruiters, that children in low-income communities received a subpar education when compared to their wealthier counterparts. Taken alone, this was a message I supported (and still support) thoroughly. It sounded, dare I say, progressive.
As I have learned over the past few years, though, TFA is not a progressive organization when it comes to carrying out its mission. It is what others have called “faux progressive.” While its goals are noble, it’s organizational methods — undermining organized labor, among other things — are taken straight from the right’s playbook. TFA is a popular punching bag for us on the left, and it’s easy for those of us on this side of the political spectrum to write off the organization’s rhetoric in light of its core conservatism. After all, even the likes of Paul Ryan and Bobby Jindal find it necessary to couch their regressive policies in the language of equality and opportunity.
However, there is something particularly insidious about the Teach for America model. The problem lies not just in the organization’s approach to education policy. It also has a lot to do with the type of person TFA draws into the program. Yes, the organization’s crop of talent is “young” and “high-performing” and any other buzzword you would like to attach to us. But the rank-and-file, if you will, is also overwhelmingly left-of-center. This isn’t to say corps members are dedicated leftists (far from it), but they certainly wouldn’t self-identify as conservative. It is a group comprised mostly of solid, liberal Democrats.
TFA obviously doesn’t keep statistics on party affiliation or political ideology in the corps, but there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that I am correct in my assessment. During my first year in the corps I attended TFA’s 20th anniversary summit in Washington, DC. During one of the sessions, Malcolm Gladwell of the New Yorker asked the audience, “Where are the Republicans?” The short answer, as he knew, was that there were very few in attendance. Within my circle of friends and colleagues, I can think of only one person who voted for Mitt Romney in 2012. My memory could be a bit fuzzy on this point, but I feel confident saying that most corps members in Helena were Barack Obama supporters to one degree or another.
So why does this matter? To answer this question, I must return back to TFA’s relationship with unions. It is no secret that unions have struggled over the past few decades. Private sector union density dropped to a paltry 6.6 percent in 2012. This is down from 24.2 percent in 1973. The forces of capital have done a fantastic job of eroding the concept of collective representation in private industry. Density in the public sector, on the other hand, stood at 35.9 percent last year. This is down a bit from the prior few years, but it still represents a dramatic increase over the 1973 number of 23 percent. [i]
Given these numbers, it was obvious that the right would escalate its attempts to bring down public sector unions. Indeed, this is exactly what they’ve done across the country in recent years. Although one would expect figures like Scott Walker in Wisconsin and Mitch Daniels in Indiana to lead this charge, they’ve received an awful lot of help from a certain organization comprised of young liberals.
Split between the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA), teachers represent by far the largest profession within the unionized public sector. If you want to attack public sector unionism, then the first place to look is the teachers (teachers are also strategically important for a number of other reasons, as outlined here by Lois Weiner). More talented writers than I have detailed the myriad ways in which TFA aids this process. In some areas, corps members displace more experienced teachers who, presumably, would be more actively involved in the union. In other places, TFA has morphed into a powerful political force that pushes for its own expansion. Many alumni have moved into positions of educational leadership where they have a larger platform for expanding the TFA model. The most famous example, of course, is Michelle Rhee, who tacitly supports collective bargaining for teachers, but only on the simplest of issues, such as compensation.
While it is impossible to prove my next claim, I have to imagine that TFA provides a shield for right-wing politicians in their attacks on the public sector. This large block of ostensibly progressive youth, of which I was a part, should be an ally for progressive institutions like organized labor. Instead, their umbrella organization is either on the sideline, or it is actively working with conservatives to undermine the AFT and NEA.
Luckily, truly progressive organizations are leading the push back. In a recent piece in the Monthly Review, Eric Gutstein and Pauline Lipman detail the now famous Chicago Teachers Union strike. The strike was special because it brought together students, teachers, and community members to fight against an agenda that seeks to weaken teachers’ voices. It wasn’t the narrow “teachers v. student achievement” dichotomy that Rhee and her allies espouse. More and more groups are rejecting this false choice between improving instruction for children and standing up for their rights on the job. They also seem to be drawing attention to the fact that a decline in union power exacerbates income inequality, which in turn leads to worse results for low-income students.
I have a number of friends who did incredible things in the classroom. Many of them are still teaching and making a difference in the lives of their students. I’m sure that these friends would love to point out that there is even some evidence to suggest that corps members outperform their non-TFA peers. However, this debate cannot be reduced to the level of the individual or the single classroom. Instead, it should focus on Teach for America’s broader role in the public policy debate. If a large institutional force of left-leaning individuals is aiding in the right’s ongoing attempt to dismantle labor unions, will we ever really move towards a more equal society?
[i] All union density numbers can be found at unionstats.com
Zach Cunningham is a first-year Master’s student at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. In 2008 , h eworked as a field organizer for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in Youngstown, Ohio, and after graduating from Indiana University in 2010 he taught high school in Arkansas and participated in the City University of New York’s Union Semester program. He blogs at I Hear Them All.