Left vs. Left Round 2: Teach for America and the Unions

When Right by the Bay heard that Assemblyman Kevin Kiley’s vigorous defense of Teach for America (TFA) landed him in the “dog house” (the smallest office at the Capitol), we couldn’t help but be intrigued, for nothing in politics is worse than being caught eating one’s own.

But we don’t mean Kiley. In California’s most recent bout of left vs. left — this time between the unions and Teach for America – Kiley was just the scapegoat.  His very public banishment to the Capitol dog house was designed to deflect attention from the real dog eat dog world of deep blue Sacramento.

Teach for America was founded to help close the achievement gap between rich and poor students.  Its ranks consist of the best and brightest grads from the nation’s top universities who commit two years to teach at underserved schools across the country.  In addition to Kiley, prominent alumni include Michelle Rhee, and Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin, founders of the KIPP academies. In recent years, however, it has increasingly become a platform for liberal politics and the anti-Trump “resistance.” In an exposé on Teach for America in Commentary by Sohrab Ahmari, also a TFA alum, he wrote:

.…TFA has subtly downgraded the principles that had won it allies across the spectrum. George W. Bush, Mitch McConnell, John Cornyn, Chris Christie, and Meg Whitman are a few of the Republicans who championed TFA. The group attracted such boldface names, and hundreds of millions of dollars from some of the largest American firms and philanthropies, because it stood for a simple but powerful idea: that teacher quality is the decisive factor in the educational outcomes produced by schools.

Judging by its interventions in recent debates, it isn’t all that clear that senior TFA executives still believe this. These days, TFA’s voice on charters, accountability, and curricular rigor is decidedly muffled. . . . TFA’s message seems to be that until numerous other social ills are cured—until immigration is less restricted, policing becomes more gentle, and poverty is eliminated—an excellent education will elude the poor.

This status-quo defeatism was precisely what TFA was originally set out to challenge, wrote Ahmari.

How TFA lost its focus is an interesting question.  Perhaps its executives were trying to get cozy with the progressive education establishment, or campus indoctrination to left-wing ideology may have pushed the organization further left.  The irony is that TFA now finds itself as one of the favorite targets of the unions.

Kiley’s dog house digs stemmed from a heated Q&A with Assemblywoman Christina Garcia, (D-Bell Gardens), who is sponsoring a bill to rid California of TFA.  “Our most vulnerable students are getting our least trained teachers. If they’re good enough for poor, low-income schools, why aren’t they good enough for the Beverly Hillses of the world?” Garcia told POLITICO. “Why do low-income schools have to be the guinea pigs?”

The reality is that the proposed ban on TFA has nothing to do with raising student achievement but about preserving union power and union coffers.  The U.S. Supreme Court’s Janus ruling, the most important labor law case in a generation, restored union member rights to opt-out of paying dues and to leave their union.  With union membership now threatened, the California Federation of Teachers and the California Teachers Association are employing the same tactics that totalitarian regimes and dictators have used throughout history to produce loyalty among the ranks: anxiety and fear.  And the enemy? Charter schools, school boards, even the TFA.  Agitation among the teacher ranks has already brought on strikes in Los Angeles, Oakland, and Sacramento, as well as other cities across the nation last year, prompting the media to call 2018 the Year of the Teacher Strike.

Californians won’t know the winner of this bout of left vs. left for awhile – the bill is wending its way through Sacramento’s lawmaking labyrinth.  And we’re only playing a tiny violin for Assemblyman Kiley and his staff – they already know that these are the lumps you take when you’re fighting for education reform in the state.  As for Teach for America, there may be a lesson in this too, such as re-think your allies.

Sad to say, there is collateral damage: a disappointed intern who may not get the job because Kiley won’t be able to squeeze one more person in his dog house, and worse, the low-income students across the state who will continue to be stuck at the bottom in educational achievement.

Rowena Itchon is senior vice president of the Pacific Research Institute.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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