Damn, ProPublica has become invaluable in a short space of time. On Tuesday, Annie Waldman dropped a story about how Teach For America, which at its birth was a kind of strange-but seemingly well-intended-policy initiative, evolved into an arm of the for-profit charter school Grift-o-Rama. All the usual suspects are involved. The first one named is good old Sam Walton, who was qualified to remake American public education because he and his family got rich selling oversized tin buckets of Cheetos to an America desperate for them.
Documents obtained by ProPublica show that the foundation, a staunch supporter of school choice and Teach For America’s largest private funder, was paying $4,000 for every teacher placed in a traditional public school - and $6,000 for every one placed in a charter school. The two-year grant was directed at nine cities where charter schools were sprouting up, including New Orleans; Memphis, Tennessee; and Los Angeles...
The incentives corresponded to a shift in Teach For America’s direction. Although only 7% of students go to charter schools, Teach For America sent almost 40% of its 6,736 teachers to them in 2018 - up from 34% in 2015 and 13% in 2008. In some large cities, charter schools employ the majority of TFA teachers: 54% in Houston, 58% in San Antonio and at least 70% in Los Angeles.
TFA started out with fairly noble intentions. In fact, it predates a lot of the corporate education "reform" efforts, including the boom in expanded and largely unregulated charter schools. It perhaps was inevitable that the two efforts would eventually run on the same railbed.
Publicly funded but privately managed, and regarded by some proponents as a way to fix a failing education system weighed down by unions and bureaucracy, charter schools nearly tripled in enrollment from 2006 to 2016. While Teach For America has received more than $40 million annually in government grants, according to the recent tax filings, some of its largest private donors also bankroll charter schools. Over the years, these backers - including Greg Penner, Walmart’s board chairman and a Walton family member by marriage; Arthur Rock, a retired Silicon Valley entrepreneur; and Eli Broad, a Los Angeles philanthropist - have cycled through Teach For America’s board. Together, the three tycoons and their family foundations have doled out at least $200 million to Teach For America.
As you might expect, TFA alums have perfect MBA-jargoned explanations for this inevitable development. This is a beauty, from a TFA veteran who now runs the Walton family's luxurious meddling in public education.
“I was placed in a school that was pretty dysfunctional,” said Sternberg, reflecting on his Teach For America experience at a traditional public school in the South Bronx in the late 1990s. “It lacked a leadership thesis that is necessary for organizational success. The entrepreneur walks into that environment, and sees all the great things, and develops an understanding of the problem statement and then wants to do something about it.”
Why do I get the feeling that this guy's "leadership thesis" leads him to the "problem statement" that privatizing public schools is the entrepreneurial answer? Jesus, do business schools have courses in how to speak this weird form of off-English?
As the story goes on, we see TFA alums salted throughout local school departments and almost all of them steering their schools in the direction of the charter model, most notably in New Orleans.
As school superintendents and state education directors, TFA alumni have pushed to expand charters. In 2011, former corps member John White became superintendent of the state-run Recovery School District, which oversaw most of New Orleans’ schools. He’s now the state superintendent of education. Over the same period, charter schools in the city and across the state have proliferated. The last traditional public schools in New Orleans are set to close or begin a transition to charter control by the end of the year, and by 2022, all of the city’s schools will be charters.
In sum, the marriage of TFA and the charter movement has been great for the latter while it has moved the former steadily away from its original mission. This is a development worth watching in that it is a sprawling buffet for grifters.
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