The American Federation of Teachers and its defenders always like to claim that the millions it and its affiliates spend annually on preserving influence is nothing more than an effort to advance social justice. Especially when it comes to the donations the union makes to supposedly like-minded progressive and old-school civil rights groups. Even as outfits such as the Alliance for Quality Education and New York Communities for Change spend their time (and donations from the AFT) targeting reformers who threaten the union’s influence such as Campbell Brown and her Partnership for Educational Justice, union president Randi Weingarten and her traditionalist allies always proclaim the spending is really geared toward helping the poor.
Which brings up the curious case of United Students for Sweatshops, whose unit at Harvard University garnered attention last week when it issued a letter to the Ivy League institution’s president that it should cut ties with Teach For America, the alternative teacher training outfit that has long ago showed up the nation’s university schools of education. Proclaiming that Teach For America somehow destabilizes public education, USAS’ Student Labor Action Movement is demanding Harvard and its graduate school of education stop working with the outfit unless it makes a laundry list of changes. As you would expect, Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post, who uses her Answer Sheet blog to give voice to every bit of wrongheaded traditionalist thinking, wrote about the affair.
Considering that Teach For America attracts applications from one out of every five Harvard seniors, along with the university’s strong ties to the outfit (and the fact that, as with nearly every university, Harvard’s president wields little in the way of power in its shared governance), this isn’t likely to happen.
The Harvard affiliate’s move is just part of United Students’ much-wider effort against Teach For America. This includes a tour of at least five universities to supposedly tell “truth” about the outfit, as well as issuing letters such as the one it sent in September to cofounder Wendy Kopp and co-chief executives Matthew Kramer and Elissa Villanueva-Beard imploring them to meet United Students’ demands. This includes requiring Teach For America recruits to get “adequate training” from “an Official Teacher Preparation Program” (read: one of the outfit’s competitors among the nation’s ed schools). Given the overwhelming evidence — including a study released last year by the U.S. Department of Education (conducted by Mathematica) — that TFA recruits are more-effective than peers coming out of ed schools, I would say that Kopp and her crew should take a pass on all of United Students’ suggestions.
The ultimate goal, of course, is to pressure university leaders, a reactionary group that is always concerned about maintaining appearances with progressive and other left-leaning outfits, to shut the door on Teach For America’s recruiting efforts. Could it work? Perhaps, perhaps. But given Teach For America’s broad reach into higher education — along with its bona fide success in helping kids from poor and minority backgrounds receive high-quality education they need and deserve — there’s little chance of universities even bothering with that step.
But one has to wonder why would a group geared towards rallying collegians to the cause of “economic justice” and improving workplace conditions for low-wage workers is so concerned about Teach for America? Alexander Russo of This Week in Education, in particular, wondered if United Students was getting some kind of union support. To get to the answer, follow the money. And it leads back to Weingarten and her crew at AFT.
The union gave United Students Against Sweatshops $58,650 in 2013-2014, according to its latest filing with the U.S. Department of Labor. Thanks to that donation, AFT was single-biggest donor to United Students in the fiscal year; the Communications Workers of America handed the group an almost-as-hefty $55,000, while the AFL-CIO donated $12,415 to its cause. AFT is helping out United Students in other ways. Yesterday, staffers from the AFT’s Beantown local, the Boston Teachers Union came to Harvard’s campus to help United Students’ Harvard wing talk about Teach For America’s “shortcomings”, a stop-by that was mentioned by the AFT’s Twitter feed for organizing higher ed faculty.
For the AFT, the cash to it gives to United Students ends up being a two-for-one special. As part of the outfit’s Education Justice effort, it is also targeting Students for Education Reform, the group cofounded by Catharine Bellinger and Alexis Morin five years ago while they were attending Princeton University. As far as United Students is concerned, both Teach For America and SFER are not progressive enough because of their funding from the Walton Family Foundation (yeah, that anti-WalMart stuff) and other deep-pocketed reform-oriented philanthropies. The fact that United Students itself is being funded by the AFT, an equally deep pocket which garners its funds by forcing teachers (and ultimately, taxpayers) to pay into its coffers thanks to compulsory dues laws, doesn’t factor into their thinking.
Nor does United Students consider the fact that the AFT, along with the National Education Association, are no different than the companies they rail against. For the unions, who collect $2.2 billion annually from teachers by force, this includes corporate social responsibility activities such as handing money to United Students. This gives the AFT the patina of being progressive even as their efforts (including opposing Parent Power activists) only serve to preserve failed policies and practices that hurt the very poor and minority communities for which United Students claims concern. One has to wonder if United Students’ eager-beaver members consider these issues (along with the fact the AFT refuses desires of its rank-and-file, violates their first amendment rights through compulsory dues, and actively stifles their voice), as they rail against Teach For America, which has been lauded by reformers and traditionalists alike for an openness and willingness to listen to recruits and alumni. Guess they can be comforted by the fact that, unlike the NEA, the AFT hasn’t been called on the carpet for union-busting.
For the AFT, the largesse handed out to United Students gives them some mileage with the progressive groups they have long co-opted. As for United Students? The upside really isn’t there.
*Updated to include reporting on the Boston Teachers Union’s appearance at Harvard.