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Teach For America's Relationship With Charter Schools


About 30 years ago, Teach For America was created with the goal of addressing teacher shortages in public schools. Today, according to ProPublica Education Reporter Annie Waldman, it's become a vital ally of the charter school movement. Enrollment in charter schools has been steadily growing. They often operate on public funds, but they aren't held to the same level of oversight as public schools are. And critics say they sap resources from the public school system. Annie Waldman joins us now from our studios in New York.

Welcome to the program.

ANNIE WALDMAN: Thanks for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In your reporting, you found that, at one point, Teach For America was receiving more money for teachers placed in charter schools than for those placed in public schools. Tell us more.

WALDMAN: Yeah, so when I was doing a little bit of research on Teach For America, I found this internal grant agreement that was provided to us from a former employee. And it was between Teach For America and the Walton Family Foundation. It was for $20 million between the years 2013 to 2015. And it was to help TFA recruit and train nearly 4,000 teachers for low-income schools in about nine regions, which includes New Orleans, Memphis and LA.

So in the details of the grant, if you look closely at the fine print, it says that for every placement of a teacher in a traditional public school, Teach For America would get $4,000, compared to every placement in a charter school, Teach For America would get $6,000 - 50% more funding. I had many questions after seeing this. You know, why pay more money for placements in charter schools, especially as if you look at the organization's website, they say they're not concerned about whether their teachers go to traditional public schools or charter schools and that they take no position on school governance? And the thing about this grant that's so interesting is it was targeting nine cities in the country that were all undergoing quite extreme education reform. The number of charters were increasing over this time. And it seems that the Walton Family Foundation, which has been a supporter of charter schools, was hoping to help out charter schools with the teachers.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You write that Teach For America has become reliant on the support of the Walton Foundation and other school choice advocates, as you say. What has been the response from Teach For America?

WALDMAN: Well, Teach For America has always said, you know, that their donors don't sway their approach. They don't have any one funder that is more than 5% of their overall budget. And they said they're very focused on their objectives and what their values are and the needs of their community. That said, you know, if you do look at this grant, it does appear that the money that they were receiving from the Walton Family Foundation was incentivizing, to some extent, the placement of their teachers in charter schools. And even when I spoke with the Walton Family Foundation about these - this donation, they said that they wanted to ensure that the growing number of charter schools had access to high-quality educators given the increased demand from communities.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In your report, it shows that Teach For America places 40% of its teachers in charter schools but only 7% of students actually attend those schools. So why does this matter that Teach For America seems to be favoring charters?

WALDMAN: You know, for me, the reason why I wanted to look into this story and why I thought it was important was that, you know, we live in a country at a time where billionaires, like the Walton family - they play a large and even an outsized role in our society. We have a self-professed billionaire in the White House and another billionaire at the helm of the Education Department. So, really, you know, looking at this story was more about trying to follow the old investigative journalism adage - follow the money.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Do you think this has hurt Teach For America's credibility?

WALDMAN: I don't know if it's going to. You know, I think that, ultimately, it's a large organization. It's one of the largest nonprofits for education in this country. They receive a lot of public funding. I think it's important for people to understand where this funding is going and, you know, what the mission really is and how it shifted and evolved.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Annie Waldman covers education for ProPublica. Her new article is titled "How Teach For America Evolved Into An Arm Of The Charter School Movement."

Thank you very much.

WALDMAN: Thanks for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And we should note the Walton Family Foundation is a supporter of NPR. In a statement to NPR, Teach For America says charter schools have become a significant part of the public school landscape in many low-income communities, and its teacher placements, quote, "reflect that reality." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.