TFA and Charter Schools Move into Sacramento


Teach for America, founded in 1990, employs recent university graduates, or corps members, to instruct low-income students. TFA, with a presence across the US, arrived in Sacramento, Calif., with 16 teachers in six area schools last school year.

There was little news coverage of TFA’s coming to California’s capital city. Was this an accident?

The answer is unclear. What is clear is Michelle Rhee, a TFA alumnus, helms StudentsFirst, an education reform group hostile to teachers’ labor unions, from its national headquarters in Sacramento.

Rhee is married to the city’s mayor, Kevin Johnson; they are registered Democrats. Critical news coverage of their efforts to reform public education is limited.

On that note, the Sacramento News & Review, the city’s alternative weekly, ran two full-page advertisements for TFA recently. (Disclosure: I contribute to SN&R occasionally.)

In the Golden State’s capital city, TFA corps members taught at one traditional public school with a labor union representing all classroom teachers in 2012-2013. TFA corps members also taught at five public charter schools that privately operate with taxpayer dollars, hiring employees under at-will contracts in Sacramento.

Ninety percent of the public charter schools across the US operate as non-union workplaces, according to author and historian Diane Ravitch. This is a close fit to the schools with TFA employees teaching in Sacramento.

Nikolas Howard is the executive director of TFA in Sacramento. Reared in Los Angeles, he became interested in classroom teaching and education reform in the 1990s.

Howard is the first in his family to attend college. He completed his undergraduate studies at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, and graduate school at the University of Oregon.

Howard joined TFA in 2003, teaching special education at a middle school in West Philadelphia. Howard was a TFA coach, instructing incoming teachers in the South Bronx, N.Y., from 2005-2007.

Later, he accepted TFA posts as an assistant principal, chief instructional officer and principal in L.A. He arrived in Sacramento last year. 

According to Howard, half of TFA’s teachers in Sacramento are local residents, and identify as people of color from low-income backgrounds. Half of the TFA teachers instruct students in kindergarten through middle school classrooms.

The other half of TFA corps members teach in middle school to high school classrooms, Howard said. There was a 100% TFA teacher retention rate from last year to this year, according to him. 

Critics like Ravitch find fault with TFA teachers’ short time training to be classroom teachers versus lengthier requirements under traditional higher education preparation.

She also criticizes the shorter time span of three or fewer years that TFA teachers are in the classroom compared with traditional public school teachers whose careers can and do last longer.

In Sacramento under Howard, TFA operates from the Oak Park neighborhood. Significantly, Mayor Johnson grew up there.

It is worth noting that Johnson rose to fame as a star basketball player at Oak Park’s Sacramento High School, then UC Berkeley, before going on to a celebrated career with the NBA as a point guard for the Cleveland Cavaliers and Phoenix Suns. (Disclosure: I attended and graduated from Sacramento High.)

Sacramento voters elected Johnson to a second consecutive four-year term in 2012.

He is the first African American mayor of California’s capital city, an active proponent of corporate-funded education reform, accepting millions of dollars for this mission from philanthropists such as the Walton Family Foundation, and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Mayor Johnson is involved in public education reform on many levels. Locally, he has a hand in an education nonprofit, Stand Up Sacramento Schools, and public charter schools; nationally, he is Second Vice President of the US Conference of Mayors, Vice President of the National Conference of Black Mayors, and Chair of US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s Education Reform Task Force.

Further, Johnson was a force in TFA’s arrival in Sacramento, according to Howard. Asked to name other interests involved, Howard noted the efforts of AT&T, Bank of America, Pacific Gas & Electric, and State Farm Insurance.

Howard downplayed Rhee’s involvement in TFA coming to Sacramento. Questions of corruption over Rhee’s alleged role in students’ cheating on 2011 standardized test scores when she was the chancellor of public schools in Washington, D.C., remain, first reported by USA Today.

TFA teachers instruct students at public charter schools in Oak Park: St. HOPE Public School 7, Sacramento Charter High School, and Oak Park Preparatory Academy. Mayor Johnson founded St. Hope in 2003.

Two-thirds of the TFA-placed teachers in Sacramento work in Oak Park, an area that declined economically as postwar suburban sprawl grew. New freeway construction helped to isolate this Sacramento neighborhood.

Recently, the Great Recession hit, and a weak recovery followed. Consider some effects of the weak economy in Oak Park.

For this Sacramento neighborhood’s 95817 zip code of 13,534 people in 2010, the unemployment rate was 18.2%, according to the 2007-2011 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates. In 2007, the California unemployment rate was 5.4% versus 11.8% in 2011, according to the state Employment Development Department.

TFA corps members also teach students in a second low-income neighborhood called Meadowview in south Sacramento. Penny Schwinn is the principal at Capital Collegiate Academy, a public charter school.

Like Rhee, Schwinn is a TFA alumnus. At the same time, Schwinn is also an assistant superintendent of performance management with the Sacramento City Unified School District, and a past trustee on the Sacramento County Board of Education.

Capital Collegiate Academy is located in the 95832 zip code of Sacramento, where the jobless rate was 20.8% for 2007-2011, according to the American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates for the same four-year span.

One might think that kids growing up in poor neighborhoods need the wisdom of experienced teachers. However, TFA teachers are novices to the profession.

Apparently, what TFA corps members lack in experience they make up for elsewhere in their classroom instruction. It is not clear why less time teaching versus more improves children’s learning.

Howard was unable to share longitudinal achievement data for Sacramento students of TFA teachers for their year in the capital city. Such numbers of course assume that testing results as the dominant and controlling factor in education are a legitimate means for assessing students’ learning.

Turning to the money trail, TFA receives 30% of its operating revenues from public sources (federal, state, and local school districts) and 70% from private sources, according to its 2011 Form 990. The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, and Walton Family Foundation contributed over $5 million each to TFA, while the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation gave an amount between $1 million and just under $5 million.

Would TFA have the presence it does now in Sacramento absent the involvement of the wealthy foundation trio? Such a scenario is hard to see, given the power and influence of billionaires and their hired help to get their way, economically and politically.

Seth Sandronsky lives and writes in Sacramento. Email 

From The Progressive Populist, October 1, 2013

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