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Money From Donors, iPads for Free: How Is it That Teach For America's Struggling Corps Are Broke?

Guest post by Barbara Torre Veltri, Ed. D.

The season of giving might be behind us, but non-profits continue to target donors. Teach For America, Inc., attracts major contributions, but TFA teachers (often referred to as corp members) are raising questions about where the money is being spent. Many TFA teachers take out hefty loans to cover their living expenses as they get trained and begin their placements. These loans must be repaid within thirty days if the teachers leave the program for any reason.

Philanthropists, corporate donors and foundations view Teach For America's as worthy of significant financial support (Ravitch, 2010). The non-profit register, Guide Star, lists TFA as a "public charity."

The Heckscher Foundation for Children notes on it's web site, "We continue to support Teach for America (TFA), whose mission is to eliminate educational inequity by harnessing the talents of our nation's most promising future leaders." Teach For America's Board Members include high profile members such as Laurene Powell, (widow of Steve Jobs), Walter Isaacson, CNN analyst and Harvard Professor, David Gergen, Larry Summers, and owners of consumer goods companies: (1) Build-A-Bear, Inc., 2) Netflix, Inc., and (3) The GAP. Last fall, Apple stores convinced thousands of purchasers of new iPads to donate their old ones to "teachers in low income schools." Nine thousand of these iPads were then refurbished and distributed to Teach For America corps members.

Governors of Arizona, Colorado, Mississippi and Texas, contributed state funds to the Teach For America organization, in 2010. And, Governor Jan Brewer of Arizona stated, " I am pleased to announce the award of $2 million of my discretionary funds to Teach For America."

A significantly larger than reported operating budget was shared with an audience of donors in March 2011. Pearl Esau, then Executive Director of Teach For America's Phoenix region, stated: "Teach For America is expected to lose $21 million from its $880 million operating budget next year," (Colick, 2011).

During the 3rd and 4th quarters of fiscal year 2011 funds for TFA arrived in the form of a $50 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education, a $100 million grant from the Walton Family Foundation and an endowment of $200 million pledged by Eli and Edith Broad and five wealthy supporters. In addition to the philanthropic and corporate donors, each of the 42 TFA regions across the country including the recently added 2011-2012 sites in Alabama, Kentucky, Seattle and South Carolina, pay "finder's fees," ranging from $2,000 - $5,000 per corps member annually, to the Teach For America organization.

Any way you do the math, Teach For America raises a lot of money. And, this, in turn, raises a lot of questions. Corps members, their families, public agencies and others wonder, "Where does the money go?" It came as no surprise to me that more voices expressed concern about Teach For America's transparency in financial matters. These concerns persist across cohorts of corps members, and particularly in a tough economy, TFA interns suggest a hidden agenda that impacts financially struggling corps members and their families.

Since I wrote my book describing some of the problems Teach For America Corps members have experienced, a number of them have written or spoken to me to share their stories. The statements below are quotes from this correspondence (names have been changed.)

"You sign contracts for all these loans/grants/placement fund money, etc - it's all done online though and I doubt very many TFA-ers or their families bother to read the fine print." (Paul)

This summer, on a balmy August afternoon in Del Mar, California, a mother of a newly trained TFA corps member assigned to teach in an urban city in upper mid-west, shared that her daughter received $3,000 from Teach For America. She thought it was a grant. When I told her that it would need to be paid back, she was shocked! She assumed that Teach For America would provide the financial support (especially for travel) to incoming corps members. "How else would college grads with student loans, go from their college in California to the TFA training on the East Coast, and then to the teaching assignment in the Midwest?"

As a mom of children who incurred student loan debt in college, and one who heard hundreds of corps members experiences I appreciated her concern. An additional financial expectation was not what parents or corps applicants were expecting.

Most tell me, "TFA is going to pay for grad school." That is not true. The Ameri-corps stipend of less than $5,000 per year is provided upon completion of two years of successful completion of teaching duties with TFA. If you complete one year, and have a car accident in year two, your stipend is not a guarantee.
'
"I am having an enormous issue with Teach for America and the district after I was involved in a severe car accident. My arm was stitched in five places and I had back injuries. I was afraid to even ask for time off because after my first year, I was promoted to a unique nine-hour educational program for 5th and 6th graders that the District paid for. My principal took a gamble on this, and I was afraid to let them down by taking the needed time off. My condition worsened and I was taken to the E.R. during a school day when a lesson plan for a 30-minute period was missing. When I returned to school I was moved to a Kindergarten class! Kindergarten!

"Throughout this, my program director, and my executive director came to two meetings, one with me and one without. My E.D. (Executive Director) literally defended them and stated 'It is evident Radya is not following your directives. I will make sure she has more clear expectations, she follows them, and gets the help she needs.'" (Radya)

I learned from corps members that Teach For America's "loans" cover several categories.

"There are 'transitional loans", which are for covering unpaid summer training time/moving costs, etc. and these need to be paid back no matter what, but you have a two-year payment plan. But if you don't finish your two-year commitment for ANY reason, you have to pay them back in a month) and then there are also transitional grants, which are rarer and usually smaller than the loans and these don't need to be paid back (unless you don't finish your commitment and then again, they have to be paid back in one month), and there are also 'placement funds', which TFA gives to Corps members who aren't placed, once the school year starts (equivalent to the average teacher's salary in a region) and again, these don't need to be paid back unless you don't finish your commitment and then you have one month to pay them back" (Brandon).

Another mother funded her only child's TFA-related-funds herself. This outlay, which began in June, covered her daughter's travel (airfare) to her assigned teaching region in the South, transport of her car from their family's Southwest home, funds for apartment deposit and first month's rent, funds to setup her apartment, funds to set up her classroom, roundtrip travel (airfare) to Teach For America's Corps Training Institute in Atlanta, and funds for living expenses for four months (June-September).

"I've spent over $5,500 for my daughter so far, and she's not received her first pay check yet. We are a middle class family, but I didn't want Marla (pseudonym) to have to take out any TFA loans. I had some concerns about that." (Mrs. Jacoby).

The problem occurs when corps members receive big transitional loans/grants packages from Teach For America to cover their summer/moving costs and sometimes also get on the placement fund for a month or more. Most TFAers are not as fortunate to have parent support until their first paycheck arrives from the school district, usually one month after the start of the academic year.

"Of course, TFA and their recruiters generally fail to emphasize that these loans/grants need to be paid back within a month, if one drops out of the program (but of course, no one ever quits TFA, and if they do, it's their fault!)." (Rico)

"Then sometimes (as you well know) Corps members have health issues or are mis-placed or other issues come up and they have to leave the program, but then they are often stuck up a river financially (unless they have rich, generous parents)...That's the financial trap TFA sets for unsuspecting Corps members who aren't given a proper picture of the realities they will face who are often placed in grade levels/subjects they aren't expecting, etc. I've heard from many Corps members all over the country who desperately want to quit, but know they will screwed financially if they don't finish their two years' (Bryce)

The appeal of 'mission,' combined with a patriotic sounding brand name, and the image of intelligent, young, ivy league graduates teaching poor children, (although the majority of corps members hail from state universities) encourages an elite pool of donors, who desire to be part of the "movement,"(Caplan, 2007; Danois, 2011). The "service" notion entices friends and political allies of Teach For America to embrace the mission for the following reasons: (1) service doesn't require extensive training (no Education degree required), and (2) service supports a non-profit, tax exemption for donor's generosity.

Ms. Kopp, CEO of Teach For America noted that TFA was not designed to bring career educators into the classroom, but to expose future leaders to issues in education.
For corps members directly impacted by Teach For America's allocation of financial resources, this information might seems difficult to swallow.

TFA's founder, Ms. Kopp, stated in a video-taped interview with Malcom Gladwell, "TFA is not a teaching organization, but rather a leadership development organization." One of TFA's regional web sites reports,"25 TFA alums will run for office in the next two years." Guidestar's Organization report on Teach For America, Inc. notes, "We believe that the best hope for a lasting solution is to build a massive force of leaders who have the insight and conviction that comes from teaching successfully in low-income communities"

Corps members have persisted in advocating for changes to Teach For America's training, placement, and recruitment model. Now, the financial issues appear daunting.

Brandon reports, "Corps members get entrapped by TFA financially (I still pay more per month in TFA loan payments right now than I pay in federal loan payments for my entire undergraduate education)."

"TFA forces Corps members (in most cases) to rapidly pay back all their transitional loans and 'grants'/placement fund money (within a month) if they have to leave the program early for whatever reason (hence ensnaring many Corps members financially)" (Jeremy).

Unfortunately, TFA makes any Corps member who leaves the organization early pay back their often significant (this person's amount is $5,000) transitional loans and 'placement funding' within a month. Life happens, even with corps who report that they contract cancer, are in severe automobile accidents, or have been physically harmed by inappropriate placements.

I recall picking up my corps member grad students (figuratively) for university courses, which coincided with the start of their own teaching. They were grasping for any "this-works- try-it-tomorrow" strategies, as well as support from non-TFA veterans. Their facial expressions for the most part were giveaways, as glazed eyes, even on twenty-some things, betrayed their lack of sleep. Most were on financial overload too, as expenses tied to traveling from (a) their college to their assigned school district, and then (b) to their summer TFA training, and then (c) back to their school district, had to come from somewhere, because most would be working one full month before a pay check arrived from their real teaching job in the late summer/fall. So, beginning a master's degree program, from the university, added one more load onto novice TFAers, which, for most, was like trying to sop up the floods from a hurricane with a sponge.

Questions still persist
The resources to adequately prepare, place and support rookie TFAers appear to be in the coffers of Teach For America. The burden to manage financially for four months prior to a paycheck while figuring out teaching, should not be placed on mostly twenty-something-rookie TFAers, who, in spite of intelligence, resourcefulness, and tenacity, are still... recent college graduates with educational loans, travel and living expenses, that appear to not be covered by the not-for-profit donations of well-meaning donors.

What do you think of the questions raised by the author? Have you had any experiences related to this?

Barbara Torre Veltri, Ed. D. Assistant professor in the College of Education at Northern Arizona University, is the author of Learning on Other People's Kids: Becoming a Teach For America Teacher (Information Age, 2010.) She was introduced to TFA in 1999 and was the first university liaison with TFA based at Arizona State University, where she worked to develop a TFA specific master's program, that included modeling, on-site coaching and supervision in corps classrooms, presented workshops at All-corps meetings, taught courses for TFA, and developed outreach to their executive and program directors, over 7 years. After that she expanded research to visit other areas and gather corps data in three other states and of course, received documents and continues to be in touch with corps alumni and corps parents.

References:
Caplan, L. (October, 2007). Great Expectations; Why Big Donors back Teach for America. Slate Magazine.

Colick, Z. (March, 2011). East Valley program strives to bridge the gap, eliminate 'epidemic of low expectations'.

Danois, E. B. (January, 2011). Teach for America Gets $100 Million in Funding.

Kopp, W. (2003). One day all children: The unlikely triumph of Teach For America and What I learned along the way. New York: Perseus Books.

Hjalmarson, D. (April 2011). Non-profit Teach for America to place teachers in Kentucky.

Miner, B. (Spring/Summer 2010). Looking Past The Spin: Teach For America. Rethinking Schools.

Ravitch, D. (2010). The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education. New York: Perseus Books

Veltri, B. (2010). Learning on Other People's Kids: Becoming a Teach For America Teacher. Charlotte, North Carolina: Information Age Publishers.

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