The Movement Lives in Ferguson
Teach For America, Black Leadership, and Disaster Capitalism
Former Black Panther Bruce Dixon, in his blog for the Black Agenda Report, asked a provocative question last year when he wrote the headline: “‘Teach For America’ Trojan Horse Among Ferguson Activists?”
Whether the muted response can be attributed to apathy or ignorance of Teach For America’s activities, the organization carried on with its operation in plain view, and the question seldom came up again. Today, TFA shows no sign of slowing down. For three days in February, the vanguard of the education reform movement will host its 25th Anniversary Summit in Washington, D.C. “Together We Rise” is the tagline for the event, for which they’ve booked two major downtown venues and three hotels.
The 501(c)(3) non-profit has indeed come a long way since Wendy Kopp founded it in 1990. In its first year, Teach For America had 500 recruits; by 2013, the organization controlled nearly half-a-billion dollars in assets and employed 11,000 teacher “corps members” in schools across the United States.
Despite mounting evidence that school privatization does more harm than good, in less than three decades TFA has spread their reach to thirty-eight states and the District of Columbia, playing an indispensable role in enabling the proliferation of charter schools—schools run by private businesses with public funding—throughout the country. But it doesn’t stop there. Tracing the genealogy of tax-exempt education reform foundations puts Teach For America at the center of a massive scheme, backed by powerful donors, for corporate takeovers of public schools everywhere—not just in the US, but around the world.
“Join us,” reads the header on TFA’s 25th Anniversary Summit web page, “to reflect on the progress we’ve made over the past 25 years as we step forward together to reach One Day.” (The capitalized “One Day” appears to be a reference to the title of Wendy Kopp’s 2001 memoir about TFA’s origins, One Day, All Children...) Below it, the event description says: “Our 25th Anniversary Summit will bring together thousands from the Teach For America community, all united behind a single goal: in our lifetime, every child will have access to a truly excellent education.”
In the past, TFA relied on political alliances with policy makers, like former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and DC’s ousted mayor Adrian Fenty, to seize control of school districts and impose the charter school model. But the long game—what it calls “the second half of the movement”—is to develop its corps members into a leadership class of its own. Kopp explains:
“I think the way to understand Teach for America is as a leadership development program. We need political leaders, policy makers, doctors, lawyers, and probably more business leaders than we are producing right now . . . In the long run, we need to build a leadership force of people. We have a whole strategy around not only providing folks with the foundational experience during their two years with us, but also then accelerating their leadership in ways that is strategic for the broader education reform movement.”
By developing corps members into leaders committed to its ideology, TFA has disguised its centrality in the education reform movement, spawning a disorienting web of interconnected but nominally independent foundations. These organizations, nearly all of them founded or directed by TFA alumni, work together in coordinated campaigns to dissolve school boards, bust teachers’ unions, and secure public funding for charter schools.
Among them is the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), an umbrella organization for charter schools founded in 1994 by TFA alumni Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin, which administers 183 schools in cities like New York, D.C., and New Orleans, where education reformers connected to TFA first cleared the way for privatization. KIPP’s reputation has earned it the moniker “Kids In Prison Program” for its schools’ draconian disciplinary policies, giving new meaning to the term “school-to-prison pipeline.”
The justification for this epidemic of institutionalized child abuse in the form of charter schools depends entirely on standardized testing. The No Child Left Behind Act mandated an increase in testing across the United States, and education reformers seized on the “achievement gap” revealed by the test scores. This metric has been used, first to justify firing thousands of teachers and principals and closing schools, and then as proof of charter schools’ effectiveness. But all along the entire premise was bunk. The Texas Observer reports on the work of University of Texas professor Walter Stoup, who in 2012 testified to the Texas House Public Education Committee that standardized testing was not a reliable measure of student aptitude.
Stroup knew from his experience teaching impoverished students in inner-city Boston, Mexico City and North Texas that students could improve their mastery of a subject by more than 15 percent in a school year, but the tests couldn’t measure that change. Stroup came to believe that the biggest portion of the test scores that hardly changed—that 72 percent—simply measured test-taking ability. For almost $100 million a year, Texas taxpayers were sold these tests as a gauge of whether schools are doing a good job. Lawmakers were using the wrong tool.
Stroup’s testimony had little effect, and it ultimately cost him his tenure. Meanwhile, Teach For America’s leadership bloc has grown beyond the non-profit sector and is working its way up the ranks of state power. As the Nation reports, “More than seventy alumni currently hold public office, including two state senators. Within the federal government, their ranks include two assistants to Education Secretary Arne Duncan, as well as education policy advisers and associates in the offices of Senators Harry Reid and Al Franken and Representative George Miller.”
The most notorious of Teach For America’s political operatives is alumna Michelle Rhee, who in her last year as Chancellor of D.C. Public Schools was the hero of the 2010 feature film “Waiting For ‘Superman.’” The documentary, a masterpiece of modern propaganda, is unreserved in its exploitation of working-class families, to sell to the public the kinds of policies that made those families desperate enough to be used in such a way to begin with.
Director Davis Guggenheim narrates and, over heart-wrenching images of young Black and Brown children surrounded by urban decay, gives away the plot with an astonishing claim: “For generations,” he says, “experts tended to blame failing schools on failing neighborhoods. But reformers have begun to believe the opposite: that the problems of failing neighborhoods might be blamed on failing schools.”
Here the word “failing,” of course, is a euphemism for poor. After all, what does it mean for a neighborhood to “fail?” On the other hand, it is an empirical fact that public schools in poorer districts are poorly funded. But this rhetorical sleight-of-hand is emblematic of TFA’s explicitly outlined strategy for countering negative press.
An internal memo, made public last year in a story for the Nation, paints a frightening picture of TFA’s outsize political power. According to the memo, an unnamed source inside the Department of Education tipped off the organization that TFA alumna and Nation reporter Alexandra Hootnick had filed a large FOIA (Freedom Of Information Act) request on Teach For America, indicating that “she was unlikely to portray TFA in a positive light.” In response, TFA utilized its press connections, website, and social media accounts to do pre-emptive damage control.
The memo also describes how TFA monitors Internet communications to pick up on controversy surrounding its brand and neutralize it before it grows. Its rapid response to online criticism of Mother Jones for running a TFA advertisement shows that its PR team has media manipulation down to an exact science:
“As soon as we saw this conversation beginning to build our communications team drafted a short response, which shared the overwhelming positive reception we’d received from the magazine’s readers and our disappointment that a small group would use this as an opportunity to rehash factually inaccurate information and distract attention from the critical issue of early childhood education.
“We posted this response on our On The Record page within a few hours of the detractors making noise and tweeted it out from our national handle twice because the conversation wasn’t immediately dying (Tweet one (April 30) and Tweet two (May 1)). These tweets generated five posts from five unique supporters and a Twitter reach of 107,519 (the ‘@teachforamerica’ Twitter handle represented 106,131 of the 107,519 supporters) and a Twitter exposure of 213,621. There were 269 clicks on the link to the On The Record page. At this point the conversation died.”
Although the World Wide Web has created novel means of disseminating information, the basic strategy of utilizing mass media to influence public opinion—and, by extension, public policy—has been around for a long time. The propagandist Edward Bernays, widely regarded as the founder of the public relations industry, articulated this method in a 1955 paper entitled “The Engineering of Consent.” Declaring that “only by mastering the techniques of communication can leadership be exercised fruitfully in the vast complex that is modern democracy in the United States,” Bernays insists that leaders should not seek to inform the public, but manipulate it:
“With pressing crises and decisions to be faced, a leader frequently cannot wait for the people to arrive at even general understanding. In certain cases, democratic leaders must play their part in leading the public through the engineering of consent to socially constructive goals and values. This role naturally imposes upon them the obligation to use the educational processes, as well as other available techniques, to bring about as complete an understanding as possible.”
The intersection of education, politics, and wealth thus made public school systems ideal breeding grounds for a public relations leviathan. Not only does privatizing schools create new opportunities for profit, it provides cover for class warfare in general, while subjecting teachers and students to a fundamentally ideological process. Writing for the Nation, George Joseph expounds on this concept:
“For decades, sociological research has shown that anti-poverty measures, not energetic young college students, are the driving factors in improved education outcomes. Yet for over twenty years TFA’s organizational model has been based upon the idea that a college student, fresh from a five-week summer camp, could swoop into [a] poor, overcrowded classroom and inspire her students to overcome all barriers of structural inequality. Thus, the fundamental premise of Teach For America elides this need for wealth redistribution, perhaps explaining TFA’s massive corporate donor appeal.”
Teach For America doesn’t just have an extensive PR apparatus; it is an extensive PR apparatus. Bruce Dixon’s suspicions about Ferguson were fully justified, for as he notes, TFA is “backed to the tune of hundreds-of-millions per year by Wal-Mart, the Broad Foundation, Monsanto and a long list of corporate villains and hedge fund predators intent upon dismantling, destroying and privatizing public education in Black and Brown neighborhoods, turning public education into a private profit center.”
That’s precisely what Michelle Rhee did when, in her first year as chancellor, she closed 23 schools and fired 157 D.C. Public Schools employees, including 36 principals. By the end of her tenure, 682 teachers represented by the Washington Teachers Union—most of them Black—lost their jobs.
Teach For America proved indispensable in that endeavor, as it supplied a reserve army of inexperienced recruits to replace tenured teachers in the few schools that had not been shuttered, and to staff the dozens of new charter schools that sprang up around the District, enticed by Rhee’s school voucher scheme. Among its foot soldiers in that period was the woman Bruce Dixon would later accuse of being a “trojan horse:” Brittany Packnett, who began her career in 2007 as a TFA corps member at Martin Luther King Elementary School in Southeast D.C.
Thanks in part to the notoriously racialized political landscape of Washington, D.C., the publicity surrounding Michelle Rhee represented a growing liability for TFA. The ensuing backlash ended Adrian Fenty’s Mayorship, and then grew in response to the situation in New Orleans, where education reform reached its apex in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. 7,500 teachers were laid off in the midst of the prolonged humanitarian disaster that followed severe and widespread flooding in the city of New Orleans, while the number of TFA recruits quadrupled. In May 2011 Governor Bobby Jindal appointed TFA alumnus John White to be superintendent of the New Orleans Recovery School District. White closed every single public school that remained, making the RSD the first all-charter school district in the country (he was promoted to state superintendent the next year.)
The disproportionate devastation of these policies for Black communities created a race problem for Teach For America. In response to the growing backlash, TFA doubled down on its liberal rhetoric and began to re-brand itself as a Civil Rights organization. Selling such an image necessitated a new class of political operatives, one that was “majority-led by the oppressed group.” So when protests erupted in the majority-Black town of Ferguson, Missouri on August 9th, 2014, TFA saw its window of opportunity.
Most people who followed the story from the beginning will recognize the name Antonio French. The alderman from St. Louis might justifiably be credited with making the police execution of Michael Brown a national headline. For the first several weeks, thanks to his prolific tweeting, French was among the most visible personalities on the ground in the now-infamous Midwestern suburb, garnering profiles in national publications like the Washington Post, and TV spots on CNN.
On August 21st, 2014, in a post that has since been retweeted 1,342 times, French announced that Teach for America had set up shop in Ferguson. This wasn’t merely on-the-ground reporting, but free publicity from a man whose business connections with TFA’s St. Louis chapter were well-established. Two years prior, French had founded a non-profit in St. Louis modeled after the Harlem Children’s Zone, a pioneer of the charter school industry. Among the North Campus’s recruits were staff who had originally come to St. Louis to teach as TFA corps members, and by May 2013, French had brokered an official partnership between North Campus and TFA St. Louis.
French’s partner in the deal was Brittany Packnett, who by then was executive director of TFA St. Louis. The rapport they developed over the next year surely made it easier for Packnett to establish herself among the nascent protest movement’s purported leadership. Twitter conversations between them suggest that Packnett was in Ferguson as early as August 12th. She publicized Antonio French’s arrest on August 14th and, on the same day, declared her “revolutionary love” for St. Louis’s Black children in a rather incoherent post on TFA’s official blog:
“Education didn’t save Mike Brown. Racism killed him. There seems to be only one solution-end racism. . . . [W]hile issues of inequitable education, unemployment and poverty contributed to this crisis, racism is the cause for Mike’s death . . . We must love our students enough to engage in the hard work of active anti-racism, confronting our own biases and ensuring that we dismantle deadly systems of racial dominance and oppression.”
Then, on August 16th, a new player joined the operation. As he tells it, Deray McKesson made the eight-and-a-half hour trip from Minneapolis to Ferguson on August 16th under his own initiative, and on his own dollar. There is an air of mystery surrounding McKesson’s seemingly spontaneous appearance on the scene, but in any case, he soon found his place among the Teach For America cohort. That much was inevitable. Deray Mckesson is also a TFA alumnus, and his enthusiasm for education reform is evident.
McKesson was present with Antonio French and Brittany Packnett the day Teach For America began its Ferguson campaign in earnest on August 21st, 2014. He joined French in publicizing the event on twitter, while TFA began the work of curating his public image on the same day, with a feature on the TFA blog.
Before long, McKesson supplanted French as a go-to source for live updates on the ground in Ferguson, aided by promotion from Teach for America. On October 29th, TFA advertised a “national conference call featuring TFA alumni @MsPackyetti [Brittany Packnett] and @deray.” The Washington Post profiled McKesson in an article published November 13th, and TFA promoted it on social media, identifying him once again as a “TFA alumnus.” On December 10, Time Magazine named him and several others, collectively referred to as the “Ferguson protesters,” as runner-up to Person of the Year—and again, TFA promoted it.
A simple twitter search query reveals this trend, right on up to TFA’s big break: a cover story in the May 4th issue of the New York Times Magazine, under the headline “‘Our Demand Is Simple: Stop Killing Us.’” The 6700-word article profiles McKesson and fellow overnight superstar protester Johnetta Elzie, as they drop in to protests in cities across the United States (who’s paying for it all is never explained.) According to the Times, the two got together in mid-September, under Brittany Packnett’s leadership, to produce a newsletter for the Ferguson protests called This is the Movement, which boasted a “wide range of readers, from reporters to protesters to officials within the Department of Justice.” (In actuality, the “newsletter” was simply a collection of links to articles from various external publications, a few charities, and several T-shirt vendors.)
“Twitter is the revolution,” McKesson is quoted as saying, in an utterance that has gone on to become his mantra. TFA, of course, benefits from the illusion that social media is inherently liberatory; as we have seen, twitter has proven to be an immensely useful tool in their million-dollar PR arsenal. And so we learn just how much McKesson has in common with his “influencer” Michelle Rhee:
“After graduating in 2007, Mckesson joined Teach for America and taught middle school for two years in East New York, Brooklyn, before moving back home to Baltimore to work in H.R. (Human Resources) for the city’s schools. He developed a reputation as a ruthless administrator—every hiring and firing was justified, in his own mind, by what was best for the kids in the district.”
When one imagines a revolutionary activist following in the footsteps of the Civil Rights movement, a ruthless human resources administrator does not usually come to mind. But that is the “Superman” at the heart of the neoliberal narrative pushed by the education reform movement. Yesterday it was Michelle Rhee and John White; today, Brittany Packnett and Deray Mckesson represent the superheroes we have been waiting for.
The post-Katrina privatization coup was the culmination of years of economic restructuring in New Orleans following the disaster, which former Secretary of Education famously called “the best thing that happened to education in New Orleans.” The concept behind this phenomenon was identified by Naomi Klein in her 2007 book The Shock Doctrine. Klein illustrates, using New Orleans and occupied Baghdad as case studies, that “disaster capitalism” is a predatory policy framework that depends on the chaos brought about by catastrophic events to recuperate public infrastructure and cede it to corporations. No wonder, then, that TFA operatives like Mckesson keep showing up in cities like Baltimore when the threat of rioting looms large.
While McKesson was busy shoring up TFA’s brand, making the rounds on the cable news circuit and garnering praise for such intellectual feats as making Wolf Blitzer look dumb on TV, Brittany Packnett swiftly moved up the ranks of the political class. In November 2014, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon named her to the 16-person panel on the Ferguson Commission. The next month she joined the Dream Defenders’ Phil Agnew and a handful of others in a private meeting with President Obama in the White House.
The meeting evidently paid off, as Packnett was subsequently selected for the President’s Task Force On 21st Century Policing. One of the co-chairs under which she would work was former D.C. Metropolitan Police Chief Charles Ramsey, whose own civil rights violations against protesters were so severe that in 2009 the city was forced to pay them $8.25 million in damages.
The task force’s final report, predictably, ignored any substantive economic analysis in favor of milquetoast reforms. These recommendations found further expression in the much-ballyhooed Campaign Zero, a watered-down platform launched by Brittany Packnett and Deray McKesson, who make up half the campaign’s planning team.
For their efforts, the two were rewarded last July with a $10,000 prize from Teach For America, who named them the winners of the 2015 Peter Jennings Award for Civic Leadership. Antonio French got his, too, in the form of a $500,000 grant for his St. Louis non-profit from the state of Missouri.
Meanwhile, the future of the protest movement they helped build is uncertain. For all the protestations that Black lives matter, Teach For America’s crimes against Black communities have gone largely unchecked, shielded by its near-hegemonic public relations empire. The movement lives.
The movement is also spreading its tentacles across national borders. Teach For All, founded by Wendy Kopp in 2007, claims affiliates in 37 countries, where globetrotting alumni have exported the TFA brand. Teach For India, Teach For Lebanon, and Enseņa por Colombia are among the fruits of the second-half of the movement.
Teach First Israel, which claims schools in occupied Jerusalem, is particularly worrisome. According to its website, TFI was launched in partnership with JDC (a Zionist resettlement foundation) and the Israeli Ministry of Education. Not only is Kopp’s foundation thus directly implicated in Israel’s violations of international law, each of its litany of corporate donors consequently meet the standards for boycott from the growing international Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. Now that that’s out in the open, perhaps a silver lining can be found in the potential for new forms of joint struggle between Palestinians and the United States’ Black underclass.
Teach For America’s goal of “One Day, All Children” isn’t a promise; it’s a threat. That’s worth remembering on February 5th, the day TFA descends on Washington to celebrate its 25th anniversary.
—Black Agenda Report, October 13, 2015
These organizations, nearly all of them
founded or directed by TFA alumni, work together in coordinated campaigns to dissolve school boards, bust teachers’ unions, and secure public funding for charter schools.