By Liv Finne
Third grader Enrique (not his real name) eagerly describes his Teach for America teacher like this: “He let us borrow bigger books.” “I am learning English now.” “My goal is to be at fourth grade in reading by the end of the year.”
Teach for America (TFA) is a nationally recognized training program that provides highly motivated, talented teachers to schools nationwide, especially in low-income inner city communities. TFA graduates come from highly respected colleges, including Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, and the University of Washington. Studies show their students typically make more progress in reading and math compared to students of other teachers, including veteran and certified instructors.
TFA educators set high goals for their students: a clear focus on math and science, 40 minutes of reading every night, and a desire to graduate and go on to college. In the communities where its teachers work, TFA is helping children to raise their sights and reach for the stars.
Seattle-Tacoma is the only metro area in the Pacific Northwest in which Teach for America operates. Despite TFA’s nationwide track record, however, not everyone in Seattle is happy. The Washington State teachers’ union sees opening schools to TFA graduates as a threat to their power within the system. Union executives did not want TFA in Seattle in the first place, and now they are doing everything they can to drive these young instructors out of local classrooms.
In late March, the Seattle School Board members took up the issue whether to accede to the union and bar TFA teachers from city schools, or to allow them to continue educating Seattle children.
How did this happen? How did Seattle get to a point where the school board considers ousting some of the best-qualified teachers in the country where they are most needed? In October 2010, the board invited TFA to provide trained instructors for some of the most-needy schools. In response, six young TFA teachers have been working in Seattle classrooms for nearly a year, impressing administrators and parents with their energy, ability, and professionalism. Though demanding, they are popular with students and set high expectations for what they believe kids can achieve.
Then the School Board changed. In the 2011 election the teachers’ union backed two candidates, giving thousands of dollars to their political campaigns. These candidates won; and in what some see as payback, they are now spearheading the union drive to oust TFA from Seattle schools.
There’s more. The Seattle Times reported that union-inspired activists are harassing TFA teachers at Aki Kurose Middle School and South Shore K-8, hoping to get them to quit. Their personal information has been posted online. One teacher’s home was burglarized.
TFA may be stirring up the union in Seattle, but the program is considered routine in other cities. Since 1990, nearly 33,000 TFA-trained instructors have taught more than three million students. Today, 9,000 of them educate more than 600,000 students in 32 states and the District of Columbia.
The program is supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Ironically, the Seattle-based charity eventually might find it can fund TFA educators in Philadelphia or Boston, but not at John Hay Elementary up the street from their headquarters. Over 3,000 University of Washington graduates apply to TFA each year. Why can’t these UW grads find a welcome at schools in their own city?
On March 21, the Seattle School Board voted 4-3 in a packed public hearing to keep the school district’s partnership with Teach for America for now. According to The Seattle Times, the board member considered the “swing vote” said she did not want to limit a program which some principals wanted, noting that participation is their choice.
In the end, the Seattle School Board was right to allow principals to choose if they want to hire TFA teachers. Schools exist to teach students, not to benefit a union. Children should be free to learn from high-achieving, motivated, effective teachers; and principals should be able to hire the best teachers available. Banning Teach for America from a school district won’t harm the adults involved―TFA teachers would just move to schools in other cities. The real harm from the reactionary and mean-spirited campaign in Seattle falls on kids like Enrique, all because some grownups think protecting their privileged status is more important than helping children learn.
Liv Finne is Director of Washington Policy Center’s Center for Education and serves on the Education Task Force of the American Legislative Exchange Council. She holds a law degree from Boston University School of Law and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Wellesley College. Liv is a guest contributor for Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research center.