Dear Ms. Villanueva Beard, CEO, Teach for America:
The current wave of teacher strikes across the United States leads us to request that Teach for America leadership rethink your organization’s stance towards your members’ participation in those strikes.
An Associated Press article (“Teach for America Slammed over Oakland Strike”, Feb 12) indicates that your advice to TFA members in the event of a strike is to do what they think is right, but to understand that joining the strike may come at substantial financial cost to them. To be fair, your spokesperson hints that TFA “is exploring if it could help supplement an AmeriCorps education award if a teacher loses it.”
This advice is troubling for three reasons. First, it’s textbook coercion to lay a decision and the penalty for making it alongside each other while acting like you don’t mean to connect the dots. The fact that AmeriCorps has a policy preventing participants in its programs from striking doesn’t make the threat less of a threat. That is, it’s no less coercive by virtue of being accurate.
Second, there’s a conflict between the fact that your members are fully faculty at the schools where they teach, including their right to become members of the union, and your policy that they face penalties for participating in perfectly legal activities attached to their membership. They’re allowed to pay dues; they’re allowed to file grievances; they’re allowed to vote in union elections; but they are penalized for striking. It’s difficult to see any logic in which those propositions are consistent.
Finally, TFA’s claim not to have a position on strikes rings awfully hollow in the context of your support for and collaboration with publicly anti-union forces; this piece from Gary Rubinstein names just a handful, and anyone who has followed TFA over the years is likely familiar with more.
We understand you’re trying to thread a needle: recognizing the right of your members to participate in legal activity while recognizing a policy of your partner organization. To be candid, we would be more sympathetic to the difficulty of that position if TFA hadn’t been so unfriendly to teacher unions–and the entire reason that we need them, which is to stabilize the teaching workforce instead of exponentially increasing turnover.
With all that in mind, we are therefore asking Teach for America for two actions.
- Shorter term: follow through on the suggestion in the AP article linked above to “supplement” any financial harm to TFA members if they engage in legally protected activity. Not to put too fine a point on it, TFA has access to resources (private benefactors in addition to federal dollars) to replace the subsidies without really missing any of it. We’re confident you could make up the difference without much struggle.
- Longer term: encourage AmeriCorps to change its policy regarding eligibility for loan-repayment or tuition assistance based on participation in legally protected activity.
As long as striking is legal, and as long as TFA members can join unions, it is unethical for TFA to discourage participation in strikes, and more so while pretending not to be doing it. Furthermore, although many supporters of teacher unions and public education are troubled by TFA in principle, your organization could earn kudos by doing the right thing here.
Sincerely, Concerned Teachers/Faculty/Union Members
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Seth Kahn, PhD
Professor of English, West Chester University of PA
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