By Jasmyn Bednar
Eagle River, Alaska
To sa y that education is in my DNA is probably an understatement,” says Anna Almore. “It’s literally part of the fabric of my whole universe.” Almore, the managing director for Teach for America (TFA) in South Dakota, spoke recently to a group of reporters from the Princeton Summer Journalism Program.
Almore joined TFA in 2008, teaching fifth and sixth graders in New York; she later worked in Philadelphia, New Jersey, and along the border in El Paso. To Almore and the many TFA alums who continue to work in education, the organization is doing incredibly valuable work. But while it’s true that TFA has plenty of successes to its credit, the organization is also leaving a complicated legacy across the country.
Teach for America was founded in 1990 by Wendy Kopp, who, in a senior thesis at Princeton, stressed the need for increased education initiatives in low-income communities. She launched the program a year after her initial proposal, and its impacts were immediate. Since its founding, the program has served 410,000 students from 51 different regions where access to quality education is historically limited. Most of these regions are classified as “hard to teach” areas, where teacher turnover rates are high, and literacy and mathematical proficiency are low. Almore, like many alums, continues to carry on the work that TFA advocates for—in her case, training upcoming TFA members in rural South Dakota.
Yet as TFA has thrived, teachers’ unions have suffered. In recent decades, the educational reform movement has led to new non-unionized schools, including charter schools, and increased advocacy for education privatization. TFA has been accused multiple times of union busting.
According to the Associated Press and Education Week, the recent strikes in Oakland, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Denver are part of this pattern. Education Week reported that more than 300 TFA alums wrote an open letter to the Bay Area chapter of TFA, criticizing it for withholding payment to any member of TFA who joined the Oakland strike. (TFA has said that it doesn’t have a stance on how its members interact with unions.)
Teachers’ unions and Teach for America have gone head to head for years now. Much of the conflict stems from the recent push toward charter schools. TFA’s largest private funder, the Walton Foundation, is a major supporter of charter schools. A ProPublica report found that the foundation promised TFA $4,000 for every public school teacher and $6,000 for every charter school teacher. In 2018, nearly 40 percent of TFA teachers were sent to charter schools, despite the fact that those schools only educate seven percent of students in America.
As the interview with Almore makes clear, TFA is doing no shortage of admirable work. For instance, the organization is helping students on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota to pursue college access, she said. But TFA must figure out how to have a better relationship with teachers’ unions, so that all teachers—both those in TFA and others—can retain protections and turn the focus back to providing the best education possible for students.