Teach for America is making incremental moves from the classroom to the political arena. The program recruits college grads who studied something other than education to spend two years teaching in underperforming schools. Several are going on to win elected office, and more are right behind them. A school board race in East Nashville pits TFA alums against one another.
Teach for America seems perfectly suited to become a political powerhouse. There are thousands of bright, young college grads – often from elite universities – who can be tapped as campaign foot soldiers.
At a recent candidate forum, current and former TFA corps members – as they’re known – pass out slices of pizza and “Elissa Kim for School Board” t-shirts. They pack the first few rows of folding chairs, but Kim doesn’t wear her affiliation on her sleeve.
“At the end of the day, right, like what I’m for are great schools,” she says. “I want schools that
really put our kids on a successful track in life, period.”
It’s been three years since Mayor Karl Dean raised funds to bring Teach for America to the Greater Nashville area (which includes schools in Davidson, Cheatham, and Rutherford Counties).
The national organization first stepped foot in Tennessee back in 2006 when Memphis became a placement site.
For the first year in both areas, TFA selected fifty recent college graduates from a pool of national applicants.
But before they hit the classroom, the corps members completed a five-week training at Delta State University in Mississippi.
Mayor Dean’s son, Rascoe, is a second-year TFA English teacher in Memphis.
According to TFA, more than 90% of corps members meet the two-year commitment, while more than two-thirds of alumni stay in education — some are even overseeing Tennessee education from higher ground:
• Kevin Huffman (Houston ‘92) – Education Commissioner for the Tennessee Department of Education
Tennessee will see roughly 500 active corps members from TFA this fall. Teach for America operates in 36 states and Washington, D.C.
Click HERE for more info on TFA’s presence in TN.
by Jeriel Johnson
In some ways, Teach for America is a difficult topic because candidate John Haubenreich also did his time with TFA in Newark, New Jersey.
“As an official organization, they’re having an interesting policy quandary as to what to do,” he says. “Then we sort of have our various supporters who are friends who are also Teach for America.”
Haubenreich believes it’s the first time two former corps members have faced off.
The organization has been in politics since 2008 when it spun off a non-profit called Leadership for Educational Equity. It prepares alums for public office, and it’s had some successes in state legislatures and school boards.
Haubenreich sees it as an extension of his time teaching high school English.
“It’s producing a generation of leaders who have classroom experience and who know what it’s like to teach in an urban classroom,” he says.
But what Haubenreich sees as a natural fit has been viewed as something less by teachers unions across the country, which often butt heads with the organization’s reform mindset.
And in a place like Nashville, there’s a potential conflict of interest. The school board contracts with Teach for America each year.
“There is a contract. I have nothing to do with it,” Kim says.
She not only taught in New Orleans with TFA. She’s now the national organization’s chief recruiter.
“Regardless I would recuse myself from any discussion or decision involving Teach for America because Teach for America will stand on its own merits, or not,” she says.
So far, TFA has impressed Metro Schools, which has doubled the number of corps members it hires each year. And a recent Tennessee Comptroller report found it’s one of just two programs that “tend to produce teachers with higher student achievement gains than veteran teachers.”
Kim and Haubenreich still have the challenge of beating an incumbent with three-decades of experience in the district – Gracie Porter. But if successful, they’ll join a growing list of Teach for America alums in public office, including the state’s Commissioner of Education.
Election Day is August 2nd. Early voting starts Friday.