Like many other urban districts across the country, the School District of Philadelphia ended the last academic year in a financial crisis–one that resulted in a “doomsday budget” which cut thousands of teaching and staff positions, eliminated programs, and closed dozens of buildings. Despite very real fears that the district would not have the funds or the resources to open its doors on September 9th, the first day of classes began as scheduled (sort of) for the thousands of students the district serves.
On their first day of school, Philadelphia students were met with conditions that make academic success very difficult to achieve—conditions that are all too familiar in many inner-city schools across the country. In Philly this year, classes with more than 30 students aren’t uncommon (some buildings are reporting classes with more than 40 students)–and some high schools are only staffing one guidance counselor for thousands of students. In short, and by many accounts, the district is barely functioning.
Amid all this chaos, Teach for America’s Greater Philadelphia chapter is advertising, on its website, that “Today in Philadelphia, only 61% of kids graduate from high school within four years, and only 10% will go on to graduate from college. It’s clear that not all of Philadelphia’s students are getting the education and opportunities they deserve.”
As a solution, and taking advantage of the poor conditions that result from financial crisis (just as they did in Chicago, where they’re expanding their presence–particularly with plans to support the expansion of privately-operated charters while the district lays off thousands of public school teachers), Teach for America has initiated a regional restructuring plan that will transfer Camden and Trenton from the Greater Philadelphia chapter to Teach for America New Jersey. Doing so, says TFA, will allow Greater Philadelphia “to focus our full efforts on the opportunities and challenges ahead of us in Philly” (where, incidentally, TFA alum Marc Mannella is CEO of the KIPP charter network).
They’re coming, and no one should be surprised.
Anyone unfamiliar with TFA’s agenda need only look to its cheerleaders at Washington and Lee University, one of the “top producers of graduates participating in the Teach for America program.” According to Beverly Loring, director of Washington and Lee’s Career Development Center,
“Teach For America is an excellent first job, especially for high-achieving students who are not certain what direction they might want to take.”
The phrase “first job” makes clear that teaching is merely a stepping stone for many TFA corps members–notice Loring didn’t say TFA is for students who are committed to teaching children–and such jargon is consistent with TFA’s larger plan, which, according to W&L, encourages “individuals from all academic disciplines to spend two years teaching in high-need schools and become lifelong leaders in the movement to end educational inequity.” That’s right: TFAers who teach for two years (you know–the ones who don’t pursue careers in law, finance, and medicine) are encouraged to write education policy that affects the way career educators do their jobs.
Unfortunately, TFA is becoming an increasingly-appealing option for government officials like Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett and Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, both of whom seem set on blaming teachers for the budget shortfalls that resulted from fiscal mismanagement at City Hall. Just today (9/10/13), a report revealed that PA state auditors have been warning the School District of Philadelphia about glaring accounting problems since 1987, so it’s really no surprise that these problems have finally caught up with the city’s public school system. Yet Corbett maintains that he won’t release an additional $45 million to the financially-starved district until teachers unions agree to major concessions (namely, pay cuts of up to 13% and increased contributions to benefits packages). To those who value rectifying politicians’ poor financial judgment at the expense of children, TFA is a way to save the district money in salaries and promote the teacher turnover rates that will ultimately weaken unions—not to mention the quality of education that Philadelphia’s children receive.
The TFA plan for Philadelphia is all part of a larger—and glaringly transparent—scheme that will ultimately hurt students, starve public schools, disrupt unions, and promote the expansion of charters in Philadelphia. In 2013, 175 TFA corps members were placed in charter schools and 75 were placed in the School District of Philadelphia (statistics that show TFA’s priorities), and it’s clear that the Greater Philadelphia restructuring plan is designed to place even more TFA corps members in schools throughout the city in the coming years. The organization has even reserved part of a recently-renovated apartment complex to use as both office space for the Greater Philadelphia Teach for America headquarters and living space for TFA corps members who are placed in the city. If this isn’t calculated infiltration, I’m not sure what is.
So while there’s certainly no easy fix for the School District of Philadelphia’s immediate crisis, one thing is for sure: an increased Teach for America presence in the city will only serve to make current conditions worse for the district’s public school students and their teachers.
Correction: my original post stated that ex-executive director of TFA Greater Philly Tre Johnson, who now sits on the Board of Trustees at Philadelphia’s Independence Charter School, attended Washington and Lee University, which is incorrect; he attended the University of Maryland.