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Are Teach For America Members Allowed to Go on Strike?

Oakland-teacher-strike-signs-blog.jpg

Oakland, Calif. teachers are on the picket lines this week—including Teach For America corps members.

But their participation in the strike over pay and class sizes wasn't guaranteed. TFA initially said Oakland corps members who go on strike would lose thousands of dollars in AmeriCorps award money that they receive at the end of each year of service. AmeriCorps, the civil service organization to which TFA members also belong, prohibits striking, since it accepts federal money.

TFA members in Los Angeles and Denver heard similar messages during their own strikes this year. 

While TFA's Bay Area office initially suggested that corps members could make their own choice on whether to strike and lose a prorated chunk of the nearly $6,000 award, many TFA members said they couldn't afford to lose the money, which is meant to cover the cost of educational expenses, such as certification. Furious, more than 300 TFA alumni wrote an open letter to the Bay Area chapter, criticizing it for "union busting" and encouraging teachers to be scabs. 

Teach For America is credited with providing a steady stream of energetic teachers to hard-to-staff schools. Many corps members go on to become education policymakers or school leaders. But the national nonprofit has clashed with teachers' unions in the past, including over TFA's close relationship with charter schools. TFA members are allowed to join unions during their two-year service commitment, and many do.

Ultimately, the Bay Area branch of TFA announced that it had secured private donations to provide a grant to any Oakland corps member "who loses a portion of their education award as a result of making a personal decision to join the strike." Corps members who want to strike will have to exit AmeriCorps. (If they're in their first year of teaching, they can re-enroll in AmeriCorps next year.)

"Our goal is neither to encourage nor discourage you from striking," TFA Bay Area officials wrote to corps members. "Our goal is to empower you to make the decision that is best for you, your students, and our community without fear of repercussion or the financial burden of your full tuition costs."

While the final numbers are not available, most of the 58 TFA corps members in Oakland chose to go on strike and exit AmeriCorps, said Paul Keys, the executive director of TFA's Bay Area region. 

Payton Carter, a resource specialist at Oakland High School and a 1999 alumnus of TFA, said it's a "huge victory [that] comes with a caveat."

"Really, it's not sustainable," he said. "This relies on the generosity of private donors that may or may not come through in other regions. ... What is Teach For America's plan going forward when there are strike actions?"

During the seven-day Chicago teacher strike in 2012, corps members were allowed to join the picket lines. They wouldn't lose their AmeriCorps status if they went on strike—they just couldn't count strike days toward their AmeriCorps hours, which wasn't an issue since they worked enough time to easily qualify for their award. 

But Los Angeles corps members were told they would lose AmeriCorps money if they chose to strike last month. United Teachers Los Angeles President Alex Caputo-Pearl told the Associated Press that corps members in the city were not deterred from picketing, and the union would defend any teacher "facing retaliation." (Caputo-Pearl got his start in education through TFA.)

Denver corps members also received notice that they would lose their AmeriCorps grant money if they didn't report to work during the city's three-day teacher strike this month. It's not clear if any corps members there went on strike. 

Keys said AmeriCorps had changed its time-tracking system since 2012—corps members no longer have to log their hours each month, so there is no longer evidence to prove to AmeriCorps that they have worked enough time without the strike to qualify for the financial award.

Carter is asking for an "explicitly stated letter from the TFA general counsel" that clarifies the issue. An Education Week inquiry to the national TFA press office was not returned.

Most, if not all, of the corps members teaching in Oakland also belong to the union, said Oakland Education Association President Keith Brown. 

"Teach For America teachers in Oakland recognize that it's time to invest in our students, and it's time to fully fund public education," he said. "[TFA alumni] showed by signing the letter [that] we stand united."

Indeed, teachers in Oakland—including the ones who are part of TFA—are part of a community, Carter said. Many teachers, like him, started in the district as a corps member and never left. 

That's why the idea of TFA members being forced to cross the picket lines was so troubling, he said. When teachers cross picket lines, it can ruin friendships and professional relationships, Carter said.

"When it comes to the union, it's a strength in numbers kind of thing," he said. "Any losses in terms of numbers, anyone crossing the picket line, kind of weakens the whole cause."

Image: Garrick Ruiz, a union member with United Teachers of Los Angeles, center, yells while teachers and supporters march outside of Manzanita Community School in Oakland, Calif., on Feb. 21. —Jeff Chiu/AP

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