CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Teach For America has reaped millions of dollars in nonrefundable finder's fees from school systems in the U.S. through lucrative contracts that require schools to hire designated numbers of the organization's corps members - whether or not its teachers meet districts' specific content or grade-level needs, a new study suggests.
Five major U.S. school systems - in Atlanta, Chicago, eastern North Carolina, New Orleans and New York - paid finder's fees that ranged from $2,000 to $5,000 per TFA corps member per contract year, a research team found in its examination of the organization's contracts with the school districts.
The financially troubled Chicago Public Schools paid TFA nearly $7.5 million in finder's fees between 2000 and 2014 - a time period when the school system also underwent significant budget cuts, closed numerous schools and laid off thousands of teachers, according to the study, published in Education Policy Analysis Archives.
The research team found similar payouts in Atlanta, where six school districts paid a total of $5.3 million in finder's fees for 690 TFA corps members who taught in the district's schools between 2007 and 2014.
"The millions of dollars that these school districts paid in finder's fees is money that could have gone to benefit students directly but instead was pulled away from local schools into TFA's coffers," said the study's lead author, T. Jameson Brewer of the University of Illinois.
"It's hard to rationalize sending millions of dollars out of your district to a national organization when your schools are short on money and what you're getting in return is mediocre teachers, at best, who likely won't stay in the classroom as long as a traditionally certified teacher," said Brewer, the O'Leary Fellow with the Forum on the Future of Public Education and a doctoral candidate in educational policy studies at Illinois.
In Atlanta Public Schools, for example, the cumulative costs of filling one teaching position with a succession of TFA corps members over a nine-year period would total $438,804 in salaries and finder's fees, compared with $436,764 in salary and benefits for a non-TFA teacher, according to the research team's calculations.
The costs are more dramatic in the early years of staffing a position, Brewer said. The cumulative costs of salaries and finder's fees for staffing a position with a "revolving door" of TFA teachers for the first six years would be $11,541 more than the costs of a non-TFA teacher. It's not until the 10th year of repeatedly filling a position with TFA teachers that schools' costs become cheaper, the researchers suggest.
TFA, which turned 25 this year, recruits high-performing college graduates to teach for two years in schools that serve predominantly low-income and minority populations. The organization claims that its five-week training program for corps members produces teachers that are equal - or even superior - to traditionally trained teachers.
While TFA states that its corps members are not given preferential treatment in teacher hiring decisions, its contracts with school districts, called memorandums of understanding, show "that is decidedly false," Brewer said. "In fact, it's an outright lie."
The documentation obtained by the researchers from TFA offices and the schools indicated that school districts were obligated to fill specific numbers of teaching positions with TFA corps members each year - regardless of whether corps members' credentials aligned with the schools' subject-area needs.
Among other stipulations, the contracts also required that corps members be given "special consideration for appropriate existing vacancies" as new hires and as rehires after layoffs, and that they be protected from layoffs and leveling when possible, according to the researchers.
"As a former teacher myself, it's appalling that every teacher in this country gets a year-to-year contract, but these TFA contracts often require districts to give corps members a guaranteed contract for two years - double the time - and lots of privileges that other teachers just don't get," Brewer said.
Brewer and other educators who question the organization's methodologies, teacher-preparation practices and impact on the teaching profession are uneasy about its growing influence on education policy as increasing numbers of former TFA corps members rise to prominent positions with school districts and with state and federal agencies.
"In New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina wiped out the city, but corporate education reformers wiped out the educational policies there through charter schools," Brewer said. "They're seeing massive savings immediately, because the average experience of the teachers was basically reduced to zero when they fired 4,500 veteran teachers and brought in TFA recruits."
In Illinois, TFA proposed to the state board of education to provide the entire teaching staff of a turnaround school as part of Illinois' bid for Race to the Top funding.
"This would, in effect constitute an entire school takeover, including the firing of all non-TFA teachers while replacing teachers and administrators exclusively with TFA corps members and alumni," the researchers wrote.
Co-authors of the study were Kerry Kretchmar of Carroll University; Beth Sondel and Meghan McGlinn Manfra, both of North Carolina State University; and Sarah Ishmael of the University of Wisconsin, Madison.