Do you think TFA is a special interest?: “Get up, Stand Up”

A century ago, President Teddy Roosevelt railed against special interests controlling our government:

Just as the special interest of cotton and slavery had threaten the nations integrity before the civil war, so now the great special business interest who often control and corrupt the men and methods of government for their own profit.

The Constitution does not give the right of suffrage to any corporation. The citizens of the United States must effectively control the mighty Commercial forces which they have called into being.

Laws should be passed to prohibit the use of corporate funds directly or indirectly for political purposes. Corporate expenditures for political purposes have supplied one of the principle sources of corruptions in our political affairs.


In 2008, Barack Obama, an upstart US Senator from Illinois, campaigned against special interests. During an Ohio town hall, a citizen stood up and asked:

Our government us run by special interest, how do you proposed to change that if you become president. You have got allot of people that benefit from that.

How did Barack Obama respond?

This is a problem. A systemic problem. The lobbyists that have the real clout are representing the insurance companies, the drug companies, the oil companies and the gas companies. They are blocking reform… If they [special interests] are giving you millions of dollars. They are more difficult for you to challenge them. You are more likely to listen and their perspective rather than ordinary families… A central agreement of making Washington work is increasing transparency by opening up the door of government so you can actually know what is going on.

Fast forward to 2013. A blockbuster story by Stephanie Simon at Politco may have uncovered surreptitious political influence perpetrated by Teach For America (TFA)… Is TFA operating as a special interest? The hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on lobbying efforts are already well documented. Now they are defying 100 Civil Rights organizations on teacher quality for poor and minority kids. Stephanie Simon at Politico reported:

Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, chair of the education appropriations subcommittee, led the push to use the bill reopening government and lifting the debt ceiling as a vehicle for renewing a provision that defines teachers still in training as “highly qualified” under federal law.

The renewal was opposed by a coalition of nearly 100 civil rights, union and educator associations. Members said they were stunned to see it in the budget bill, especially given that Congress has not yet received data it requested last year analyzing whether the novice teachers are disproportionately assigned to schools serving poor and minority children…

Teach for America, which relies on its teachers being certified as “highly qualified” to place them in classrooms across the country, has been a big supporter of renewing the definition. Spokeswoman Takirra Winfield declined to comment on TFA’s lobbying efforts or any last-minute push to get the renewal in the budget bill…

Harkin has a history of hiring individuals from the TFA organization as his Senior Education Policy Advisor for K-12 Issues (not incidentally with 6 months of teaching experience). But there is more…In the post  A Horror Comedy: Teach For America Rises to Power, I covered Stephanie Simons piece where she described TFA’s most bodacious known grab for influence to date. Simon reported that TFA has access to millions of dollars and the legislative process to directly influence Capitol Hill by paying for “education” staffers for congresspeople on the Education and Workforce committee:

TFA also selected seven alumni this year to work for senators, representatives and the House Education and the Workforce Committee.

The Capitol Hill Fellows do the work of regular congressional staffers. But in an arrangement that Hill ethics experts call highly unusual – though not illegal – they are paid by a private individual.

The entire $500,000 cost is picked up by Arthur Rock, a wealthy venture capitalist in San Francisco.

Rock, who sits on TFA’s board, has become a leading financier of education reform. He has made sizable donations to legislative and school board candidates across the country who support expanding charter schools and, in some cases, vouchers. Until recently, Rock also sat on the board of the Children’s Scholarship Fund, which advocates public subsidies to send low-income children to private and parochial schools.

Rock declined to answer questions about whether the TFA fellows share his policy goals. He funds the program, he said, “to give bright and energized young people the chance to experience government first-hand and give back to the country.”

The fellows declined requests for interviews, citing office policies against staff talking to the press.

As for the Capitol Hill initiative, job posts touting the program to alumni promise a chance to “accelerate your impact on federal policy,” and do “direct and substantive work on education policy.”

The line, however, isn’t always clear. Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) said his TFA fellow, Alex Payne, recently took the initiative to write “really good memo” about “whether we should be paying more attention” to the federal Education Department’s Office of Innovation and Improvement. That office gives out Investing in Innovation grants – and TFA was one of the biggest recipients in 2010, winning a $50 million grant.

Holt said Payne’s memo, prompted by a question he asked about the innovation office, was more an “explanatory paper” than a piece of advocacy. He said he saw no conflict of interest.

The congressman has had fellows in his office for years; he said he benefits from their perspectives and enjoys teaching them new skills. Most, however, are funded by professional associations and nonprofits. Holt said he was not aware a private individual paid Payne’s salary until POLITICO explained the arrangement.

“That’s interesting,” he said. “I don’t necessarily see a problem with it.”

He considered. “I will think about that.”

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So I suspect Congressman Rush Holt is probably still thinking about whether TFA has outsized influence as a special interest in his office. Notably, only Rep. Holt was mentioned in Simon’s article. I was curious— where are the other TFA “education staffers” embedded by the organization on the Education and the Workforce Committee? How might we contact those who have a “reform” special interested bought and paid for on their staffs? I asked Stephanie Simon via email and she gave me the list of bought and paid for TFA congressional staffers… Without further ado…

Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ)

Rose Delauro (D-CT)

House and the Workforce Committee

Rep. Mary Landrieu (D-LA)

Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO)

Rep. Marsha Fudge (D-OH)

Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK)

In conclusion, a legislator recently told me that one of the most convicting conversations that she has had about TFA was not with one of their many lobbyist, but instead with a TFA alum that went to her office to relay her how problematic his short-term teaching stint had been in her state…

Sunshine is the best disinfectant. If the American people know what is going on, the members of Congress and the Administration start feeling embarrassed. They start saying this is being written about, people know about it. That encourages better behavior. Barack Obama

For all of Cloaking Inequity’s posts on TFA click here.

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Please blame Siri for any typos.


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