Teach for America leaves Black Lives behind

October 26, 2015

A debate has developed among leading voices of the Black Lives Matter movement about the connection, or lack of one, between the antiracist struggle to the battle against the education reform movement, including Teach for America (TFA), an organization that recruits college graduates without any teaching experience and places them in schools in low-income communities, often in cooperation with charter school operators. Here, New York City educator, activist and writer Brian Jones sets out the context of this discussion and examines the arguments of those who believe Teach for America can help make Black Lives Matter.

THE DIVERSE and determined movement against police violence and murder--now known to so many as Black Lives Matter--is facing a series of political challenges, as grassroots movements inevitably do. Choosing demands, deciding on strategy and tactics, selecting leaders and holding them accountable--all of these are difficult matters, and the road to success has potholes to avoid at every turn.

The phrase "Black Lives Matter" is open to a wide number of interpretations. Making Black lives matter in anonymous encounters with police officers is one, obviously. But many in the movement make connections to the fight for the $15-an-hour minimum wage or the struggle against violence directed at Black women and LGBTQ Black people. Connecting these proverbial dots will only make the movement stronger.

Another obviously connected issue is K-12 schooling. Sixty years after the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, American schools are more racially segregated than ever, with Black children overwhelmingly concentrated in underfunded schools. They are disproportionately subject to significantly harsher disciplinary procedures than their peers, starting from pre-K--to such an extent that there is even a phrase for it: the "school-to-prison pipeline."

New York City students protest plans to open another charter school in the Bronx
New York City students protest plans to open another charter school in the Bronx

Across the country, parents, teachers and students have challenged the policies that uphold these patterns, consciously seeking to connect the Black Lives Matter movement to the effort to end institutional racism in public schooling. The students in Seattle who walked out of school to protest the decision not to indict Darren Wilson for the murder of Mike Brown are just one example.

And here is where it gets challenging.

IN MOST places, these same education justice activists have been confronting the sweeping privatization of public education--that is, school closings, the proliferation of charter schools, union busting and the spread of high-stakes standardized testing--which has been the bipartisan policy on education at the national level for more than two decades.

Yet the advocates of privatization have repeatedly cloaked their agenda in the robes of the historic civil rights movement. From the Wall Street banker who called charter schools "the civil rights movement of my generation" to the former U.S. Secretary of Education referring to the anti-union, anti-public school film Waiting for "Superman" as a "Rosa Parks moment" for education, to the judge comparing the recent anti-teacher tenure lawsuit in California to the Brown decision, over and over, corporate reformers claim to be fighting for justice for Black children.

There is no single, authentic "Black" standpoint on this issue. Black people are genuinely on both sides. Former charter school CEO Geoffrey Canada favors privatization and claimed that his goal was to "destroy" public education. Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), says that fighting for Black children requires saving public education.

Nevertheless, it's not difficult to pull apart the claims of the privatizers. For starters, charter schools are more segregated than public schools. Furthermore, the most celebrated charter schools are infamous for pushing out the students who are struggling, who are more expensive to educate, or who might lower the school's test scores--especially students with special needs, English Language Learners, etc.

Focusing instruction on raising standardized test scores does not a good education make, and the pressure to raise scores is felt most acutely in schools where Black students are concentrated--which has led those schools to cut art, science and even social studies in order to focus more time on tested subjects: reading and math. Following in the wake of this pressure are Zero Tolerance discipline policies and the austere, militarized environment that pushes kids into the school-to-prison pipeline.

Also, trade unions have been essential levers of access to middle-class incomes for Black people--especially union employment in the public sector. Black people continue to be more likely to be union members than any other racial group, and approximately one in five Black adults work in the public sector.

Black teachers are a small minority of teachers nationwide, but they are concentrated in larger numbers in schools that overwhelmingly serve Black students, and so their jobs have been disproportionately affected by privatization. A recent report on nine cities targeted for school privatization found that all have declining numbers of Black teachers.

New Orleans may be the place where, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the privatizers have completed their work to the fullest extent. Most schools in New Orleans are now charters, the teachers' union is gone, and standardized test scores are the "coin" of competition in school rankings. No school has any obligation to any particular child. The parents get to "choose" any school, but that really means they can apply to any school--there's no guarantee their child will be admitted.

But rather than emerging as a model of Black liberation, the schools in New Orleans are more segregated than ever, and Black students are concentrated in the lowest-performing and most underfunded schools in the city.

Meanwhile, more than 7,000 Black teachers in New Orleans have lost their jobs--while Teach For America has provided a steadily rotating crop of new teachers from outside Louisiana to take their places. The number of Black teachers has dropped by almost half, while the number of white teachers has nearly doubled.

A NEW teacher unionism movement spreading nationwide is attempting to fight against the privatization of K-12 public schooling and fight the specific effects of institutional racism on Black people in schools. The most dramatic and inspiring examples of what it could accomplish were the 2012 Chicago Teachers Union strike and the Seattle teachers strike of this year.

In Chicago, the CTU said public education in the city was an "apartheid" system and exposed the dramatic inequalities of the Chicago Public Schools, while putting forward its own vision of the schools Chicago's children deserve. In Seattle, the teachers demanded and won the formation of race and equity teams to work inside schools to end the disproportionate pattern of suspensions and other harsh punishments for Black students.

Both strikes showed the power of connecting the movement to defend public education by challenging the privatization agenda with the struggle against institutional racism.

But not all Black Lives Matter activists are for making that connection.

Two people who have risen to national prominence in the fight against racist police violence and murder, DeRay Mckesson and Brittany Packnett, are proud alumni of TFA, the nonprofit that places inexperienced teachers in classrooms nationwide after only six weeks of preparation and that has enthusiastically supported the spread of nonunion charter schools. Packnett is executive director of TFA in St. Louis.

In a response to critics who she claimed made "salacious" arguments and portrayed her as an "evil Trojan horse" and "sell-out opportunist," Packnett wrote that TFA responded effectively after the murder of Mike Brown in Ferguson and the militant demonstrations that followed, using its substantial resources to help families in need and even sending people to the protests.

Packnett supports TFA's work in schools, she writes, because TFA is doing "hyper-local" teacher training that is "culturally responsive" and is placing "more diverse" teachers in schools than ever before.

But in six weeks, how "culturally responsive" can a teacher learn to be? The problem remains that, nationwide, Black children are disproportionately taught by inexperienced teachers--a problem that TFA exacerbates.

Packnett writes that she is willing to work with anyone who will fight for justice, but:

[t]hat will require that we stop yelling at one another and put children back at the center. It will require that we elevate our conversations beyond our personal ideological frameworks and the salacious viral posts that entrench them, and earnestly seek out what works best for kids--regardless of where it comes from.

Sure, we don't necessarily need to yell. But we do need to be able to discuss important disagreements. And good intentions are not enough to make the changes we need.

Another marker of one particular view among Black Lives Matter activists is Packnett's participation in President Barack Obama's task force on policing. But Obama's rhetorical support for ending police murder hasn't been matched by action when it comes to federal prosecution of murderous police officers.

MCKESSON, LIKE Packnett, argues that much of what his critics say amounts to ad-hominem attacks. In various tweets and Facebook posts, he calls for a more "nuanced" conversation about charter schools. In one thread, he wrote:

I was a TFA corps member, yes. And I taught in a public school. And was a senior leader in two public school districts. I've always supported school districts, and I don't think charter schools are the solution or that they'll scale, but I think that, to a degree and in some places, they serve a purpose. But again, there's nuance there.

It's just so interesting that the conversation is never framed about what's best for kids, and that the assumption is that I hate unions or teachers or color and want to ruin public education.

For the record, this commentary is not claiming any salacious or evil conspiracy at work. I don't assume that Mckesson or Packnett hate unions or teachers of color or that they want to ruin public education. I assume they mean what they say and say what they mean. I assume they believe in what they are doing and in the alliances they are forging. I do think, however, that they are joining forces with organizations and institutions that are hostile to a broad movement for justice.

This represents a substantial political disagreement on how to win justice--in the streets and in schools--for millions of Black and Brown children in this country. On one side, we have people, like Mckesson and Packnett, who see wealthy and powerful corporations and political elites as allies in the fight against police terror. On the other hand, you have people, including many teachers' union activists, who view the corporate and political elite as fundamentally part of the problem.

Packnett says she will never again respond to critics. That's unfortunate, because this debate is important to the future strategy of the movement in which she is playing a leading role. In a recent speech in Philadelphia, Mckesson alluded to "my own critique of TFA," Given his role in this movement, it would be useful to know what that critique consists of.

Can a movement against state violence work with the executives of the state and against them at the same time? Can the privatization of public education serve the interests of Black children? Is the growth of TFA a net benefit for Black children or a problem? These are not salacious questions or conspiracy-mongering, but genuine issues that the movement will need to understand and take up, in words and deeds.

THE PRIVATIZATION of public education is not, in my view, compatible with making Black Lives Matter in the streets or anywhere else. Yes, nuance requires us to acknowledge that some people experience the move from a public school to a charter school as an improvement in education. But at least an equal number experience the opposite move as an improvement.

While Packnett and Mckesson may not go this far, the federal and elite policy has been to promote charter schools and other elements of the privatization agenda as the solution. They do so in a manner that is totally disproportionate to the merits of privatization for ordinary people, because that elite benefits from it, politically, economically and socially.

Besides weakening the labor movement and socializing all of us to accept our lot in life, the school privatization movement has the added benefit to the elites of opening up new revenue streams for investors. For real estate investors, the Wall Street Journal reports, the latest gold rush is charter school construction. One fund promises investors a 10 percent return on their money.

Ultimately, TFA is part of this privatization "movement"--led by millionaires and billionaires like Bill Gates, Eli Broad, Stanley Druckenmiller and more--that is using genuine grievances and frustrations of oppressed communities to break up one of the last remaining strongholds of the public sector: K-12 schools.

The elites who support this agenda make a lot of noise about "racial justice" and always claim to have the best interests of children at heart, rather than the interests of various adults, especially teachers, who are implied to be selfish, by contrast. But children eventually grow up, which is one simple reason why the interests of children and adults are inseparably linked.

What kind of institution is so worried about children but treats adults like dirt? Walmart, the largest private donor to TFA, is also the largest employer of Black people in the U.S. Many of its full-time employees rely on public assistance to survive, yet somehow we are to believe that this corporate giant is "earnestly" and disinterestedly seeking out "what works best for kids."

It may be that Mckesson does agree that the Black Lives Matter movements should "connect the dots" between economic justice and racial justice. But a report on his recent speech in Philadelphia noted:

In his view, what's best for students isn't necessarily improving their socioeconomic status, though important, but rather "having a teacher who believes they can learn." What we need are "great teachers in every classroom, every day, and a system of schools that are high quality at scale," said Mr. Mckesson, who was appalled to learn that the school district of Philadelphia, a month or so before grades go in, still has a vacancy count of almost 200 teaching positions.

It seems that Mckesson feels the issue of economic equality can be put to one side while we deal with issues of teacher quality and police violence. Here, he is, consciously or not, echoing the narrative of the privatization movement, which claims to bring justice to Black children without actually redistributing any wealth or resources, and without giving up any power or privilege.

We would do well to remember the actual civil rights movement--the one where Dr. King died in Memphis trying to help Black sanitation workers form a public-sector union.

Dr. King was right when he said that genuine justice was indivisible. There won't be justice in the schools without justice at work and justice in the streets. We cannot take from one group in order to get "justice" for another. We cannot get justice for children by beating up on adults, just as we cannot have racial justice without economic justice.

If the Black Lives Matter movement is to grow, it must "connect the dots" between the struggle for justice in the streets and the struggle for justice in the schools. TFA is, in my view, on the wrong side of one of those struggles, which, at the very least, calls into question its ability to play a role in the other. And apparently, some TFA alums agree.

This isn't yelling or an ad hominem attack. This is a political disagreement about the future of the struggle for justice for Black people.

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