Teach for America’s Deep Bench

“Is this our Egypt moment? Will we seize the moment?”

Former New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein spoke those words at Teach for America’s 20th anniversary summit last summer. Coming from Klein, who is now a divisional leader at Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, incitements to political uprising might raise some eyebrows. But at the summit for the nonprofit, which recruits college graduates to be teachers in poor school districts around the country, Klein was onto something that Nicholas Kristof and Thomas Friedman have ignored in their eight pro-TFA columns: behind the veil of well-fundeddebate-worthy idealism, TFA is coordinating a political revolution.

Since its founding, TFA has amassed some 28,000 alumni. Two have made Time’s “Most Influential” list: its Chief Executive Officer and founder, Wendy Kopp, and former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor and StudentsFirst founder Michelle Rhee. Others have gained prominence as the leaders of massive charter operations, like KIPP Schools and New Schools for New Orleans. And TFA alums are currently the heads of public schools in Newark, D.C., and Tennessee.

What about the other 27,000-some-odd people? That’s where Leadership for Educational Equity, or LEE, comes in. LEE was founded in 2007 as a 501(c)4 spin-off of Teach for America to provide resources, training, and networking for alumni who are interested in elected office or other extracurricular leadership positions. Its goals are ambitious: by 2015, as its standard job posting reads, it hopes to have 250 of its members in elected office, 300 in policy or advocacy leadership roles, and 1,000 “in ‘active’ pipelines for public leadership.” If all goes as planned, LEE could shift control over American education reform to a specific group of spritely college grads-turned-politicians with a very specific politics.

LEE functions in part as a network for TFA alumni. In the restricted section of its website, to which I gained access through an existing member, you can find job postings ranging from government relations at the National Education Association to Web Editor for the Heritage Foundation. Members are also encouraged to connect with each other: “[P]erhaps you want to bring some of your fellow LEE members to an education rally in Houston. You could cast a wide net, and search for all LEE members within 100 miles of zip code 77001. Your search returns about 240 LEE members—that’s quite a rally.”

The organization also provides resources for the electorally curious. Besides running two six-month fellowships pairing members with public officials, it offers a variety of webinars and tool-kits on organizing, advocacy, and elections. In a PowerPoint entitled “What School Boards Can Do,” you meet two reformers, one of whom is pushing for “data-driven, outcomes-focused” superintendents, the other “driving debate on pay-for-performance.” In another presentation, charter operator Future is Now advises on getting elected to union office. “New unionism,” in its rendering, means “enabling unions to play a critical role in the development and implementation of new efforts aimed at meeting students’ needs/achievement.” Inspired by Obama’s call to “out-educate” and “out-innovate” the world, Future is Now is in the dual business of “reforming” unions and pushing for new charter schools—in other words, something a little afield from the Chicago Teachers Union, whose reigning Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators has rallied alongside community groups to stop school closings and fight for more resources in district schools.  

Though LEE’s 990 filings are missing from the IRS’ online database and chronically allergic to press attention, executive director Michael Buman says that its budget this year is $3.5 million. While Buman maintains that elections constitute the “minority” of LEE’s work, some portion of that sum has gone toward electing TFA alums to office.

“We provide various kinds of in-kind support,” he says. “If we host a training and the person is a candidate, that’s an in-kind contribution. Sometimes they want us to take a look at a piece of mail that they’re sending out.” On the other hand, “Sometimes the candidate looks at our services and says no thanks.” Furthermore, he says, LEE does not operate independent expenditures campaigns, which support candidates or candidate committees without officially cooperating or consulting with them.    

The limited-access section of LEE’s site reveals the numbers: In 2010, 12 LEE members ran for local boards of education (with 4 wins), 31 for Chicago local school councils (14 wins), 31 for neighborhood council or other local office (21 wins), and four for state legislature (two wins). In LEE’s accounting, these totals are a step up from 2008, when five members ran for school boards (four wins) and four for other local offices (three wins). In total, as of August 2011, LEE counts 56 TFA alums in office: 14 on school boards, 13 on local school councils, 24 on neighborhood councils or other local boards, two state senators, a constable, a judge, and a justice of the peace.

LEE’s poster boys—its two state senators—are of similar breeds. Soon after uprooting a 27-year incumbent to become Maryland’s youngest ever elected state senator, Bill Ferguson, who is 29 years old and worked as a TFA teacher in Baltimore, introduced a package of bills last year that included a Maryland version of parent trigger. (Parent trigger laws allow some proportion of parents to vote for new school management—and in some cases, entirely new staff—at their kids’ schools.) Upon entering office in Colorado in 2009, Michael Johnston, who is 37 and served as part of TFA’s Mississippi Delta corps, wrote a controversial, and ultimately victorious, bill that weakened teacher tenure and upped the role of students’ “academic growth” in teacher and principal evaluations to 50 percent. Ferguson got elected with significant support from TFA alumni; alumni also make up four of five Johnston staffers.

Of the five LEE members profiled at its website’s “Candidate Corner,” three speak a common language: Caitlin Hannon, vying for the Indianapolis School Board, supports merit-based pay and decries the “lemon dance” of “ineffective practitioners” lampooned in Waiting for Superman; Rob Bryan, a Republican running for the North Carolina House and fellow merit pay proponent, asserts that “the solution for struggling schools is not simply throwing more money at their problems;” and Allison Serafin, TFA’s former executive director in Nevada and candidate for State Board of Education, has signaled support for expanded standardized testing and parent trigger. (Takashi Ohno and Jeremy Ly, candidates for the Hawaii and Illinois Houses, respectively, have meager site material on big-ticket issues; neither could be reached for comment for this piece. It’s worth noting that Ly led a campaign to unionize a charter school and has received donations from the Illinois Federation of Teachers.)

According to Buman, “LEE does not have any kind of litmus test about any policies. We’re completely policy-agnostic.”

Alex Caputo-Pearl, a teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District and a member of TFA’s inaugural class, is leery of LEE’s politics. Caputo-Pearl is a co-founder of the United Teachers of Los Angeles’ Progressive Educators for Action Caucus, which, like its Chicago allies, advocates member and community organizing and resists school privatization. “LEE hasn’t been openly unsupportive of our work,” he says. “But LEE is clearly looking to strategically promote folks who have a different politics”—including, he claims, his union’s “NewTLA” caucus, trumpeted by Future is Now and founded by a TFA alum.

Steve Zimmer, who was elected to the LA school board with the help of TFA alumni and is still a proud alum, now feels a cold shoulder from the group—possibly, he suggests, because of his stances on charter schools and unions that buck “TFA orthodoxy.” “There are many ways we can get to transformation in public education,” he says. “Either TFA is going to welcome those multiple pathways or it will run the risk of creating the resistance in the political arena that there once was at the school site.”

Because it counts on federal grants and local contracts—in sum, $43 million in 2011—TFA has to be involved in some amount of political advocacy. LEE voiced indirect opposition to TFA skeptic and Wendy Kopp persona non grata Linda Darling-Hammond when she was being considered as Obama’s Secretary of Education. In the case of Kira Orange-Jones, TFA’s executive director in Louisiana who was recently elected to the board that oversees New Orleans’ Recovery School District and approves TFA’s contract, TFA is in a position to influence its own contract from both sides.

LEE adds a new dimension to TFA’s growing empire. A selective crowd of high-achieving college graduates is primed to take over the leadership of America’s schools. This summer’s elections for Nashville’s school board, which featured a race between TFA alums, could be a preview of intra-family rivalries to come. (The winner, Elissa Kim, is TFA’s chief admissions officer and garnered near-record donations for her campaign.) And while LEE may be policy-neutral, it isn’t hard to imagine the massive proliferation of Michelle Rhees and, in turn, the entrenchment of education reform geared toward money-soaked charter expansion, “new unionism,” and test-based student achievement. In other words, what began—and is still viewed by many—as an apolitical service corps could be the Trojan horse of the privatization of public education.

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