Teach for America Congress intern program shows they care about influence, not students | #students | #parents

  • Teach For America is a nonprofit with a mission to “strengthen the movement for educational equity and excellence.”
  • But instead of focusing on students, Teach for America seems more focused on getting their alumni into the halls of power and building their influence.
  • The perfect example of this is the congressional internship program, which sends TFA teachers to intern with lawmakers who push policies that hurt the very students TFA serves.
  •  Kaila Williams is a freelance writer currently based in Santa Barbara, CA.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Teach for America is a non-profit that works to “confront educational inequity through teaching and at every sector of society to create a country free from injustice.” It trains leaders from across the country to serve low-income students in over 50 regions through two years of teaching in a public school. 

However, Teach for America plants itself in predominantly Black and brown communities with the goal of educational equity, without considering other factors that go into ensuring an equitable and excellent education.

A quality education can’t be achieved without addressing outside conditions that also need to be fulfilled in order to achieve educational success like healthcare, mental health, and issues rooted in systemic racism and classism. Teach for America is indirectly addressing many of these issues, but not in any systemic and consistent way that is aligned with its mission.

Not only is TFA failing to meet students’ needs outside the classroom, but it is also discrediting it’s own goal with actions that continuously go against the betterment of the students its corps members serve. 

Partnering with politicians hostile to the mission

The best example of actions that serve corps members rather than students is the Capitol Hill Fellows Program, a year long program that places alumni in full-time, paid congressional staff positions on Capitol Hill. According to Politico, the entire program is funded by Arthur Rock, a venture capitalist in San Francisco who also sits on TFA’s board. 

Alumni have been placed with members of Congress such as Sens. Patty Murray, Sherrod Brown, and Michael Bennet, as well as the late Rep. John Lewis. These are all members who traditionally support policies that promote and strengthen education for all students in America, fund healthcare, and fight for equal rights. This placement makes sense. These are members who will fight against discriminatory hair policies in schools, fight for lower interest rates on student loans, and fight for affordable healthcare for underserved Americans.

At the same time, other alumni have been placed with members such as Sens. Ben Sasse, Lamar Alexander, and Tim Scott. These placements are done with a clear break in the divide between the partisan lines. Their stances tend to lean toward anti-immigration, school choice, which opens public schools to private competition, and have a skewed view of the experiences of Black and brown students in America’s education system. 

At the 2018 New York Times Higher Ed Leaders Forum, Alexander said, “I would apply the same sort of enthusiasm to underrepresented points of view that colleges have applied to underrepresented students.” To be quite frank, I’m not sure what enthusiasm he is referring to as I sit here and scroll through all of the “Black at” accounts on Instagram. Higher ed isn’t enthusiastic about underrepresented students, unless it is to their benefit.

What I want to know is why TFA is partnering with people whose ideologies and policies don’t support the students their organization serves? Well, it’s quite simple. TFA’s overall goal isn’t to create great teachers, it’s a self-identified “leadership development organization.” The ultimate focus isn’t on the students, but rather on advancing the TFA participants’ careers.

It’s not about students

The ultimate goal of the TFA system is clear when you go to their website and look up alumni’s current work from healthcare to policy to education, and more. To be honest, they’ve done a great job. Forbes 2017 30 under 30 had 10 Teach for America alumni in the Education and Social Entrepreneurs categories. TFA has weight almost everywhere you turn, regardless of the sector you’re in. 

This focus on ingraining the program and TFA alumni in the halls of power also translates to their policy work. On LinkedIn, TFA has multiple staff members who work on government affairs to, “secure bipartisan support in Congress for programs, policies, and federal funding streams that support Teach For America’s (TFA) mission.” I honestly want to know, do they not understand the needs of the students they serve?

Having a say in legislature and policy is their end goal, and programs like the Capitol Hill Fellows allow for that goal to be reached quickly, cheaply, and with continuity as some alumni go on to stay in politics. According to Forbes, TFA brought in more than $250 million in revenue in 2018, giving them the financial ability to have influence on the Hill and they are utilizing it. 

Partnerships with organizations like the Walton Family Foundation, and even its own political arm, Leadership for Educational Equity (LEE), TFA is indirectly controlling the educational landscape in America with whom it chooses to support and fund. Similar to the Capitol Hill Fellows Program, many of these partnerships are in favor of less progressive education reform, minimally experienced educators, and are affiliated with the movement to privatize education — a potential threat to public education. 

Teach for America is actively engaging with partners who are hurting the students it serves, and they’re doing so without remorse. In 2013 Politico published a story about TFA’s political rise to power. Co-CEO, Elisa Villanueva was quoted saying: “‘We don’t have a choice’ but to raise up more alumni as leaders, or in 20 years, we’ll just wake up and find… we have made only incremental progress. We’ve got to be aggressive.”

If these millionaire partners cared about the education of Black and brown students across America, then I don’t think we’d be experiencing the same level of civil unrest we currently are. Part of a teachers job is to ensure that their students feel valued and empowered, and TFA is directing its money in a way that disavows those beliefs. 

Instead of trying to build consensus with politicians who clearly have no interest in the lives of the students that TFA serves, the organization should instead use its resources to invest in those same students. Black America needs inherently white organizations to step up and induce change. TFA is at a crossroads with who it employs and who it serves. It has the ability to impart influence on Capitol Hill that would allow for students’ needs to be fulfilled, and would lead to a greater chance of actually achieving an excellent and equal education. 

Here’s the deal: TFA does not have to go into schools, many of whom are not in need of teachers, and attempt to teach to Black and brown students for two years in order to have power on Capitol Hill. It does not have to pretend to want to teach and empower the students of America, if the true end goal is to just have a say in policy and legislation. It does need to make it’s organization much more transparent for corps members, who like myself, were not aware of this side of the business until I was already embedded in it.

CEO and Co-Founder, Wendy Kopp was right. TFA is not a teaching organization. It’s an organization that is hedging its bets by having both sides of the party line covered, regardless of the holistic outcome for its students. If TFA wants to teach students then they need to ensure that their needs are met on the legislative level as well, and if it can’t do that then the organization doesn’t need to be teaching students.


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