Would Teach For America Catch Flak for Activism If It Wasn’t About Black Lives Matter?

Conservative pundit Michelle Malkin claims the taxpayer-supported organization is promoting a cadre of radical militants.

Over 1,000 high school and college students march from Penn Station to City Hall in Baltimore for justice for Freddie Gray on April 29. (Photo: Samuel Corum/Getty Images)

Jun 15, 2015· 3 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

Conservative columnist and blogger Michelle Malkin says the United States is facing a grave, potentially deadly threat, a movement launched with good intentions that has metastasized into a vast political army with radicals in command and hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars at its disposal: Teach For America.

Secretly operating in plain sight, Malkin wrote in the New York Post, the organization has turned its back on children despite its kids-first educational mandate, inflamed tensions between police and the community, and exploited racial conflict to advance a radical agenda.

Don’t be fooled by the idealistic name, Malkin argues: Teach For America, an organization designed to recruit the nation’s best and brightest to public school classrooms, has been hijacked by “militants” who care less about educating children than “race, tweets and marching on the streets.”

“It’s increasingly difficult to tell the difference between Teach For America—whose leaders are at the forefront of inflammatory anti-police protests in Baltimore, Ferguson and now McKinney, Texas—and left-wing activist groups such as Organizing for Action (President Obama’s partisan community organizing army),” Malkin writes in the column. “Guess what, taxpayers? You’re paying for it!”

So, Why Should You Care? Malkin’s column is somewhat hyperbolic; Teach For America has its critics, but few accuse it of advocating a racially divisive agenda. However, she raises an interesting question: Is it appropriate for teachers in a partially federally subsidized, nonprofit program to become involved in social protests?

Absolutely, says TFA, which issued a forceful response to Malkin’s column, declaring that social action is at “the very heart of what we do,” according to a statement posted on its website. As a nonprofit, the organization is forbidden from officially engaging in partisan political activity, such as endorsing a specific candidate for elected office. However, employees of the organization and individual TFA teachers are free to advocate for low-income children and their families in the manner they see fit.

Other education policy analysts agree: Like all U.S. citizens, teachers have the right to protest and organize, and their experiences can translate into teachable moments in the classroom.

At the same time, recent protests in Ferguson, Missouri, and in Baltimore are particularly relevant to TFA participants, who typically work in underserved, majority-minority schools and communities—which activists say are ground zero for the Black Lives Matter movement.

“We understand fully why teachers would want to be affiliated with the Black Lives Matter movement,” says Leo Casey, executive director of the Albert Shanker Institute and a former inner-city schoolteacher in New York. “Our teachers in great measure end up teaching kids of color. When one becomes a teacher, one doesn’t give up being a citizen.”

The Black Lives Matter movement began last summer when protesters organized on Twitter, then descended on Ferguson after a white cop fatally shot unarmed black teenager Michael Brown, an incident that made worldwide headlines and sparked months of protests. Two individuals singled out in Malkin’s column—DeRay McKesson, a former TFA teacher in Baltimore and former Minneapolis school administrator, and Brittany Packnett, executive director of TFA’s St. Louis chapter—emerged as leaders, organizing protests across the country after initially helping to set up volunteer educational programs for Ferguson kids whose schools were temporarily closed amid the unrest.

Yet Malkin describes McKesson as having “briefly” taught sixth-grade math “before graduating to full-time racial rabble-rousing,” and derisively quotes Packnett as having “bragged” that TFA “ ‘has consistently had my back’ ’’ and that Matt Kramer, co-CEO of TFA, accompanied her to protests. Malkin also identifies other TFA members who joined protests or staged civil-disobedience actions such as blocking traffic, a common Black Lives Matter tactic, and suggests they’re more committed to activism than teaching.

Malkin’s column went viral on right-wing websites, but TFA didn’t flinch: It has praised the educators as assets, not liabilities.

The activities of Packnett, McKesson, and others “are tied to the very heart of what we do: developing diverse talent to lead from all fields to address the root causes of educational inequity in our country,” says TFA’s statement. While education is its central mission, the statement reads, there’s “a growing body of research showing that TFA corps members are effective classroom teachers” with “4 in 5 alumni working in education or with low-income communities—it’s essential that alumni go on to expand opportunity for kids in every area of their lives.”

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Pedro Noguera, Peter L. Agnew Professor of Education at New York University and an expert in urban education policy, applauds TFA’s encouragement of alumni activism. Most people who join TFA, he says, “want to do something that’s helpful” for society, and “I think [support from the organization] is a very positive sign.”

Teachers have a responsibility to educate kids about what’s happening outside the classroom door, Noguera says, and that includes helping them understand the societal equality the Black Lives Matter movement is trying to address.

Although teachers typically keep their personal and professional lives separate, adds Casey, the lessons educators learn on the protest line can be invaluable for the kids they’re teaching. It’s a reminder of the injustice in society and that “the color of one’s skin shouldn’t have an effect” on how society treats their students.

Ultimately, Malkin’s essay may have done more good for TFA than harm by reiterating what the organization’s statement calls “a systemic set of issues we have in front of us” on the road to educational equality—and that teacher-activists are part of the equation.

“If the work of these alumni doesn’t have the interest of kids at heart,” TFA’s statement reads, “we’re not sure what does.”