Young teachers are caught up in a possible strike in Oakland, California, that's giving new life to the long-simmering tension between traditional public schools and the education reform program Teach for America.
The push by career educators for better pay and conditions in the classroom is clashing with the influx of temporary teachers who lack formal training but promise new energy and innovation. While supporters tout Teach for America for infusing new ideas in struggling U.S. schools, veteran teachers say their experience is indispensable.
The tensions came to a head this week when hundreds of Teach for America alumni criticized the educator placement program for suggesting corps members who strike in Oakland would lose thousands of dollars promised to them at the end of their two-year service commitment.
Teach for America said there was a misunderstanding on the guidance it provided about the strike that could start next week. It said it gave the same message to other members facing recent strikes, including in Los Angeles.
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"There's a lot of skepticism about Teach for America and their role in supporting public education as opposed to dismantling public education and being disruptive," said veteran Oakland teacher Payton Carter, who is a 1999 Teach for America alumnus. "A lot of people have said TFA explicitly is a union-busting organization, and this proves that."
Teach for America launched nearly three decades ago as a radical teacher recruitment and preparation model, placing high-achieving college graduates without formal education training into short-term jobs in low-income communities. The nonprofit vets its recruits, but they're employed by school districts, and many join unions.
The program has been credited with alleviating teacher shortages in difficult-to-hire schools and building a dedicated force of education policy and school leaders.
But the nonprofit has faced skepticism, both for its design and its perceived alliance with charter schools — another reform effort competing with the public school model for funding.
Teach for America has billed itself as a leadership program, rather than just a teaching organization. It says 34 percent of its alumni remain teachers, with a significant number working in charter schools.
Critics say its existence contradicts the teaching establishment, which values experience and longevity. Bob Bruno, a professor of labor and employment at University of Illinois who closely follows teacher issues, said skipping the typical developmental steps shows that Teach for America isn't dedicated to the profession.
"It was designed, frankly, in a way that immediately made it hostile to teachers," Bruno said. "Teachers who've gone through teacher colleges, who did apprentice programs and student teaching programs, the TFA model thumbs its nose at all of that."
Many education reform leaders are Teach for America disciples who have championed school choice to transform major public school systems, from Louisiana Superintendent John White to former District of Columbia Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee. She has been a leader in pushing to end teacher tenure, arguing that unions protect ineffective educators that plague perpetually failing schools.
But the program also has produced a number of "traditionalist" career teachers who have become its chief critics as well as union leaders. They have led some of the teacher uprisings that started in West Virginia last year.
The Los Angeles union leader who led a six-day teacher strike last month for pay raises and more support staff in the nation's second-largest school district was part of Teach for America's inaugural class in 1990.
The program's guidance against picketing didn't deter Teach for America members, and the union would defend teachers facing retaliation, United Teachers Los Angeles President Alex Caputo-Pearl said.
The Denver union this week is leading the first teacher strike in 25 years, but more than 40 percent of educators have showed up for work. The district has a reform-friendly reputation and robust Teach for America contingent.
Also this week, more than 450 alumni urged Teach for America to stop "pressuring" its 58 corps members in the Oakland Unified School District with threats of losing their ties to AmeriCorps, which offers award money at the end of their service and bans striking. District administrators have been silent on the issue.
Teach for America spokesman Jack Hardy said it was considering supplementing the AmeriCorps award at stake but said there was a misunderstanding on the guidance it sent about the rules of the federal service program.
AmeriCorps said in such circumstances, it's up to Teach for America to decide how to handle picket lines. Hardy said the nonprofit doesn't take a position on union activity.
"We cannot hinder or prohibit them from participating in a strike," he said. "And what we're trying to do is find the best options for them. We recognize that it's a personal decision for them."
Will Corvin, who is in the second year of his Teach for America stint, said he and all the corps members at his Oakland high school see the value of the union as an avenue for change given that the district has a teacher turnover crisis. The history teacher said crossing the picket line would feel like betraying his colleagues and the profession he hopes to stay in.
Corvin said he considered traditional teacher training as a student at Northwestern University but saw Teach for America as an easier way to get into the classroom. He laments how the program underprepared him for teaching and the dynamics of a school system. Now, he's also upset with its leadership for forcing a decision on him that could ultimately undermine the profession itself.
"I'm frustrated they say they are politically neutral, when not participating in the strike is a political decision," Corvin said.