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Connections Between Teach for America and Parent Trigger

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A new fantasy film is on the horizon pushing "legitimate" education reform: Won't Back Down. Activist Leonie Haimson recently published a helpful list of FAQs on this film to get the reader started. But I'm going to take a closer look at the troubling connections between the film and the much-admired organization Teach for America (TFA).

TFA is ubiquitous. Everyone and their brother falls over each other to hand them money. In fact, The Walton Foundation (aka Wal-Mart) provided TFA with a hefty grant of $16.6 million in just 2010 alone. Of all the large philanthro-capital organizations investing in education, Walton is perhaps the most conservative in its agenda. You can track its influence in all of the major market-driven reform canards: choice, high-stakes testing, vouchers, union busting, and the aforementioned parent trigger.

A recent benefit concert called "Teachers Rock" was co-sponsored by Wal-Mart, in addition to Walden Media, the group that brought us Waiting for Superman and now Won't Back Down. A major beneficiary of this event was TFA. Along with grant awards, TFA is apparently taking proceeds from Wal-Mart-sponsored events.

So, what's the connection here: parent triggers, TFA, Wal-Mart, and the rest? TFA began as a modest organization providing precocious and lightly trained college graduates for short-term employment in challenging schools. It's probably true that schools in urban and isolated rural areas are difficult to staff, even if I base this on my own experiences working with student teachers. I'm sure at one point TFA filled an important role.

But TFA as an organization now finds itself smack-dab in the middle of nearly every single "reform" initiative funded by billionaires. You'll probably find a TFA-alum somehow leading it, as a chancellor, policy-maker, or superintendent, for example. They are a crucial link in the chain of the privatization of public schools; that is, if current trends continue.

Let's break this whole thing down. Schooling's expensive. Governments allot funds to schools that certain investors now want. Run the system "at cost," squeeze out any "inefficiencies," and pocket the rest. One way to do this is aggressively push a "failure" narrative in the media and partisan policy documents. Blame it squarely on the teachers, whose benefits packages and pensions are apparently bankrupting the wealthiest nation on the planet. This narrative will undermine their security and professionalism, making it perfectly acceptable to replace them with "temps." Take a fresh, energetic crop of new college graduates, put them in difficult situations for which they are barely prepared, burn them out in two years, rinse, and repeat. It's pretty simple and labor costs are much less, but it doesn't stop there.

Someone has to rewrite the rules and continue the crisis narrative. Who better than a TFA alum who, with a little bit of "street cred" in an "urban" (read: African-American) classroom, can be easily catapulted into positions of power due to convenient, albeit expensive, connections to the financial and political elite? The "parent trigger" is one of the many new weapons in the arsenal against public services like education. Carefully clothed in the euphemism "choice," parental emotions are exploited so that public schools are "restructured" to accommodate cheaper and largely interchangeable temporary workers from TFA. In time, temps don't simply fill unexpected vacancies. Slots are specifically created and reserved for TFA temps, circumventing traditional hiring processes.

It seems rather odd. Do TFA and other well-funded, "legitimate" reform groups enjoy their money and power? In cases of the Walton Foundation and their political tools at the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), interests seem purely economic in nature. Workers are expensive, especially those that unionize. In their view, teachers in particular are too expensive because many are unionized. Well, bust their unions too. TFA will provide the cheap labor with help from a few billionaires. "Parent triggers" are just one of the many ways to pry open the vault, so to speak.

So, is TFA's mission still about education? If it is, then why take money from these huge foundations and corporations whose missions are clearly not about education? Why take proceeds from a corporate-sponsored "rock" concert, as if you're engaged in some kind of charitable enterprise? Perhaps that money should actually go right into the institutions themselves.

But see, what's going on here is not about education at all. It's about money and power. Money is being diverted, not to the neediest of hands, but to the "right" hands. Power -- political, financial, cultural, and social -- provides the plumbing. Control over the education of the masses keeps this structure peacefully in place.