Teach for America’s response to Trump naming Betsy DeVos as proposed Secretary of Education, e-mailed to alumni and corps members within a few minutes of the announcement of DeVos’s name, was interesting both for entirely avoiding commenting on DeVos herself and for how it suggests the ways TFA has guarded its leftward flank from criticism in recent years. It has done so by softpedaling its raison d’etre of shaking up the teaching profession (or, if you prefer, providing a “pipeline” of educational leadership) and embracing the lingo of identity politics in its stead.
Official Teach For America Statement on Betsy DeVos Appointment
Following the president-elect’s indisputably hostile and racially charged campaign that on many points was in conflict with Teach For America’s core values and mission, the organization today released a statement on the appointment of Secretary Designate Betsy DeVos to the U.S. Department of Education:
Teach For America lives by our values and always stands in solidarity with the most vulnerable students. The children we work for, and we ourselves, are Native, Black, Jewish, Latinx, Asian American and Pacific Islander, White, Immigrant, Muslim, LGBTQ, living with disabilities, and more. The Teach For America community includes more than 50,000 people from all backgrounds and political ideologies. We value diversity, equity, and inclusiveness, and we refuse to accept racism, bigotry, or discrimination in any form.
We call on the secretary designee and president-elect to uphold these values in pursuit of an excellent and equitable public education for all. We have worked in a bipartisan way to advance educational opportunities specifically for low-income communities and communities of color. We will continue to fiercely advocate and defend policies that are core to our mission and that increase opportunity for our students, including:
Reauthorization of a Higher Education Act that expands access for qualified low-income Americans to demonstrably high-value colleges
Safe classrooms for Muslim students and teachers
School accountability and transparency regardless of public school governance model
Preservation and expansion of the unique and critical bipartisan commitment to national service
Halting the school-to-prison pipeline, including training teachers on equitable classroom management and restorative school and community practices
That sounds like a tall order to me, much of it outside of a Secretary of Education’s wheelhouse. Contrast this to how concrete and achievable (whether or not they were wholly meritorious) the goals set out by education reformers were prior to the Obama Administration, and which were very largely achieved.
As noted by this thoughtful left-wing critique by R.L Stephens of Beyonce-flavored social liberalism in general and of DeRay McKesson, the Teach for America-supported Black Lives Matters activist and Baltimore schools administrator (and failed mayoral candidate) in particular, the vocabulary of identity politics is an easy fit both for celebrity-centric advocacy and for neoliberal, privatization-focused reform:
In his campaign announcement DeRay proudly tosses around neoliberal buzz words like “accountability” and “transparency.” Transparency in particular is, as political theorist Jon Beasley-Murray put it, “neoliberalism’s key value, going hand in hand with governance.” DeRay, once described as a “ruthless administrator” for his firing of teachers, used his campaign announcement to call for “the release of the internal audits of the Baltimore City Public School System.” Notice he’s not calling for increased oversight and regulation of notoriously corrupt charter schools or the racist lending system that destroyed much of Baltimore’s housing stock. Much like TFA-backed education reform uses data to justify school privatization, DeRay’s audits will foreshadow a similar privatizing effect for the entire city:
I also understand that transparency is a core pillar of government integrity. We deserve to know where our city services — from housing and sanitation, to schools and police — are doing well and falling short. To this end, we must invest in a broad range of systems and structures of accountability and transparency, including the release of the internal audits of the Baltimore City Public School System along with annual and timely audits of all city agencies.
I’m more sympathetic to charter schools than Stephens is, and think our housing lending system produces racist outcomes for reasons largely outside its control; even so, this seems largely correct to me. Another way of making Stephens’s argument, I think, it is to point out that “identity politics,” as we understand it, is not really identity politics at all, in the sense of admitting conflicting interests between and among groups. Stephens defends black government employees and public-sector unions who would be thrown out of work by postal privatization (which DeRay has indicated sympathy for) or by charter conversions in the city’s schools. Education reformers often respond to such concerns by stating that the school system should be designed for children’s needs rather than adults’ preferences. Fair enough, but the broader issue is simply that it’s a big, complicated country, and individual groups have particular interests that conflict with one another and not solely with the looming Trumpenreich.
Most particularly to the issues Teach for America’s response above addresses, the argument that African-Americans’ material welfare (or the welfare of native-born Hispanics for that matter) has been harmed by low-skilled immigration is simply not a fringe one or one that is difficult to defend. This doesn’t mean that Teach for America should oppose immigration, on the presumption that the majority of the students in the low-income communities it serves would benefit from lower future immigration. Teach for America is an educational nonprofit with interests in all kinds of communities and clearly should not be taking one side or another in such disputes. In many states, for example, the percentage of kids with undocumented parents (let alone the percentage in the low-income schools in which TFA corps members teach) is sufficient that it would be difficult or impossible for TFA to sign on to restriction, let alone deportation.
But pretending that everyone apart from a racially or economically privileged few have perfectly aligned interests is taking a side, and that includes entering into arguments about immigration policy, as above.
Within the demesnes of educational policy, there are also inherent conflicts in the goals TFA sets out above, but the paradoxes of schooling are what they are. Transparency and Accountability aren’t magic spells that solve all the problems of school buildings any more than all the problems of city halls, but TFA has a natural role in advocating for one side of political disputes within education. Trying to generalize that role across the broader society just muddies the waters without any clear goal.
And really, they had nothing to say about DeVos herself?