Study suggests Teach for America supports charter school policies and education privatization

Alyssa Mahoney

Although Teach for America, known as TFA, does not maintain an official position on charter schools, a recent study suggests the organization has significant ties to groups lobbying for charter school expansion.

The study, conducted by researchers at  Carroll University, North Carolina State University and the Wisconsin Center for Education Research, identified organizations that were founded by TFA alumni, had TFA alumni in senior level positions or had formal partnerships with TFA. The study suggested that TFA is a major part of an alumni network that promotes the growth of charter schools, or schools that are publicly funded but operate independently of school districts, and the privatization of education.

There were 73 UT students who joined TFA last year — the most among large schools — according to TFA’s September 2013 list.

Education associate professor Julian Heilig said he agrees with the study’s assessment, and he said while TFA argues that it is part of a broader reform movement, the organization has aligned itself with organizations that seek to provide education privately.

“As funny as it sounds, the TFA reformer war is the least interested in reform,” Heilig said. “If they’re not reformers, then they’re ideologues.”

Heilig, who blogs about education issues, said he believes TFA’s two-year commitment is insufficient because more teaching experience is necessary to increase teaching effectiveness. He also criticized its teacher training program.

“You don’t send your young, new employees to your toughest clients,” Heilig said. “They’re sending the least prepared teachers in their toughest situations.”

According to TFA Recruitment Manager Adam Reichow, TFA has no position on charter schools.

“This is the approach that some of our alumni from the 1990s and early 2000s had,” Reichow said. “That was their own solution to our problem [of education].”

Education professor Richard Reddick, a TFA alumnus, said there is as much variety in quality education programs among charter schools as there are among typical public schools.

“Is Teach for America involved in the charter school movement? Absolutely,” Reddick said. 

According to Reddick, the issues that critics have with charter schools apply to all schools. He said a major concern is whether all students have access to quality education.

“I sit on two charter schools boards and I ask these questions,” Reddick said. “Are we making our schools accessible for all students?”

Reichow said the efficacy of charter schools is a complex and controversial issue, but TFA is learning from the approach alumni who have started charter schools have taken. He said in his experience as a corps member in a Dallas charter school, parents were thankful for the ability to have more choices about what school their child could attend.

Christen Thompson, a Plan II Honors and Spanish senior and a TFA campus campaign coordinator, said she thinks TFA’s alumni network distinguishes it from other teaching programs.

“It’s biggest strength is this network of alumni — this ability to reach across different fields and collaborate for change,” Thompson said. “The education system is so complex that with people in multiple different fields, we have a better chance of change.”

Clarification: This article has been clarified since its original posting. The study cited in this article was conducted by faculty members at Carroll University, North Carolina State University and the Wisconsin Center for Education Research.