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Whitney Tilson, Banana Republic & Public Education

So--a colleague of mine just got a friendly e-mail from Whitney Tilson, urging him to buy some new khakis and support Teach for America in the process. Here's what the e-mail said:

I helped Wendy Kopp start Teach for America just after I graduated from college in 1989, so I wanted to pass along this win-win offer: you can save 30% at any Banana Republic, Gap or Old Navy store this Thursday through Sunday (August 26-29) and Teach For America gets 5% of what you spend. To date, this campaign has raised over $800,000 for TFA. Just print the coupon at...

Who's Whitney Tilson, you may be wondering? And why would Teach for America be needing extra bucks, seeing as how they just got $50 million through a federal i3 grant--to "grow the talent force to ensure all our nation's students have access to a quality education?" And just how, precisely, is this a win-win? Who are the two winners? Teach for America and Old Navy? Because it sure isn't our nation's students.

I first became acquainted with Whitney Tilson when he pitched a virtual fit over Obama's choice of Linda Darling-Hammond as his education adviser during the campaign, saying Darling- Hammond was "as bad as it gets in terms of education reform." Presumably, this is because Darling-Hammond was one of the first serious critics of Teach for America (although she later modified her stance, given changes in TFA programming that included actual training for the corps members), and has used her incisive research analysis skills to ask many hard questions about market-based policies popular with both Republican and Democratic administrations.

What Tilson has done here--tapping his hedge fund manager buds and Yale alumnae network for a pet cause--happens all the time. Even in public education-- the Chicago Public Schools Foundation, for example, supported lots of Arne Duncan's favorite initiatives, in his days as CEO. A little extra philanthropy--it's all for the kids. Drop a little cash, get a new bomber jacket, plus a warm glow in knowing that while you're looking stylish, another Ivy Leaguer gets a two-year resume-building position in a lousy public school.

I don't blame Banana Republic (and their lower-rent subsidiaries, Gap and Old Navy) here. They think they're doing community service. The Teach for America publicity budget has seen to that, by encouraging accuracy-challenged assertions like this one, from the Detroit News:

A growing body of research shows Teach for America instructors' impact on student academic achievement is two to three times that of teachers who have three years of experience. Consider them the Marine Corps of teachers for America's poorest urban and rural schools.

If you've studied the mixed research on TFA--the good, the bad and the snarky--you'll know that the Detroit News is blowing unsubstantiated smoke here. But if I were a major corporate retailer, hoping for some good PR--why wouldn't I want to help send the Marine Corps into neighborhoods where you'd never find a Gap?

And that's what's wrong with this "lend a hand to poor kids/get some new deck shoes" tactic: the money is going into one of the best-funded and most exclusive "leadership opportunities" in modern America. The Department of Education evidently believes that scaling up Teach for America will ensure that all our public school kids have quality teachers. But simple math--a mere 4,500 new TFA recruits are starting their new mini-careers, right now--tells the real story.

Our kids--and our nation--deserve a better way to genuinely invest in public education than a 5% kickback on cargo shorts for missionary teachers. While Whitney Tilson's pals are investing in TFA, colleagues in my neighborhood school are trying to decide how to spend the $1300 they got from the Target Community Giving program (a .5% return): copy machine paper or library books?

The rich get richer; so it goes. And so much for equity. Who wants to organize a teacher boycott?

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