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Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Sep 30 2012

Teach For A Profit?

Quick thoughts on two tweets I saw the other day about Teach For America’s finances. The first compares TFA’s revenue and expenses for 2011 . The second tweet looks at the incomes of TFA CEO Wendy Kopp and her husband Richard Barth, CEO of KIPP. I had issues with the implicit message of both tweets.

1.) TFA is a non-profit, but it “made” more money than it spent: I have worked for a number of non-profits in my relatively short work experience, but I don’t consider myself a “non-profit person.” According to the government, “while not-for-profit organizations are permitted to generate surplus revenues, they must be retained by the organization for its self-preservation, expansion, or plans.” Non-profits struggle with capacity building and I credit the ones who can increase their impact annually. It’s tough work. I recognize development (a.k.a. fundraising) as an increasingly integral piece of organizational health, so we can’t fault these organizations for being good at it. Furthermore, if you’re bothered by “corporate ties,” perhaps we should debate the fact that value-driven organizations have to go through wealthy gatekeepers in the first place.* Don’t hate the player, hate the game. Also, let’s not be so quick to place a philanthropists in the same boat of the grand corporate education reform conspiracy.

Organizations such as TFA, City Year, and Year Up shouldn’t struggle to do the great work. A sense of fiscal stability allows their teams to strategize longer term and to employ more qualified people to execute bold visions and plans for the future. When I was an undergraduate, our student government had a history of poor financial management. We generated a small surplus at the end of my first year as treasurer, which I put into a reserve account to hedge against future challenges. While this fund was extremely useful during 2008′s financial crisis, some students still complained saying that a surplus meant we weren’t using all of the activities fee and should therefore lower it. To claim that an organization should merely break even isĀ  a dumb argument successfully employed by the GOP following Bill Clinton, and we saw what happened to the deficit following all those massive tax cuts- just sayin’.

2.) Wendy and her husband make way too much money of their organizations: Personally, I don’t think you should have to take a vow of poverty in order to help people. As the mayor of Phoenix discovered while attempting to live on a Food Stamp budget, it’s harder to help others when you can barely help yourself. When people, typically conservatives, attack programs such as AmeriCorps, because they can’t get over the concept of a “paid volunteer,” I cringed. Please get over your cognitive dissonance and realize that a starving martyr can’t consistently help anyone. On the other hand, Wendy does make a pretty penny, but that’s her prerogative as it’s her organization. Could she take a symbolic pay cut? Perhaps, but why should she? However, by their own measures, TFA is a wildly successful organization and she makes chump change compared to CEOs of for-profit corporations. I don’t think she should reduce her pay until they do. There are more effective ways I think TFA could use their revenue, particularly in building capacity in the Mississippi Delta, but it would be egotistical for me to presume I know better than the staff, just as it’s pure hubris for outsiders to judge school districts such as Chicago. Don’t even get me started on my teacher’s salary in Mississippi. smh

Okay, getting off my soap box now. Check out this article about how some folks are addressing the “trained teacher gap.”

*Yes, the undue influence of money is a major problem. I’ll look more at this next time.

10 Responses

  1. Tee

    To me, the problem (well, one of many) is that TFA makes hundreds of millions of dollars a year and has not made any significant impact on the achievement gap, when TFA’s mission has always been to close that gap.

    I also don’t necessarily have a problem with Wendy Kopp’s salary, but I do have a problem with her husband’s salary and the salary of charter execs who make huge amounts of money while accepting government funds.

    • Alison

      Tee: The first argument just doesn’t follow. There are 3.2 million or so public school teachers in the U.S. 10,000 of them are current corps members – only an additional ~30,000 were ever part of TFA. Hundreds of billions of dollars are spent on public education in aggregate – compared to the 250 or so million that makes up TFA’s operating budget. There is nothing in TFA’s mission that states that it views itself as the one means/organization to close the achievement gap, and it also doesn’t put a timeline on it.

      I think there are important things to challenge about TFA, but misconstruing both the mission and the scope of the issue aren’t particularly helpful to that effort.

      • Tee

        The first argument doesn’t follow what?

        TFA has been around for 20 years. In 20 years, have they made significant gains in closing the achievement gap in any one of their locations? No. If in 20 years they have not even achieved their goal in one location, then why would they expand? TFA didn’t put a timeline, but I would say if two decades later, you haven’t made progress toward your goal, it is time to change your methods.

        Also, I never said that TFA views itself as the only means for closing the achievement gap. But again, if TFA views itself as a means for helping closing the achievement gap, then billions of dollars and 20 years later, they should be showing some progress.

  2. yoteach

    Nice analysis. I agree, no organization, for-profit or not-for-profit, could do much if they were forced to break even each year. And yes, corporate ties are a reality for every single non-profit hoping to get bigger (unless they have some sort of non-fundraising revenue stream). It’s the world we live in, unfortunately. In response to Tee, as long as TFA can convince corporations and donors its the best philanthropic bang for their buck, then what can we say? It would be nice if we could devise a revenue stream that connected fundraising to results, but honestly the closest thing to that is a redesigned voucher system (maybe the voucher is for a test score achieved, a graduated student, etc). But that comes with a whole can of worms and perverse incentives.

    Wendy’s pay is a bit high, but once you compare it to a CEO of a similarly sized company and it looks modest in comparison. Thanks for helping ensure this doesn’t clog the discussion.

  3. Why doesn’t TFA use the surplus money to invest in an appropriate training model instead of expansion? What if they gave scholarships for great candidates to enter quality Masters Programs or created their own in-house program that allowed recruits at least a year of prep time before being put as the teacher of record? What if they used it to stop charging cash-strapped districts $2000-$5000 per recruit?

    And for the record, I do have a problem with both Kopp and her husband’s salaries. There is a major difference between a “vow of poverty” and the combined $700,000+ their family makes off the government grants, taxpayer money, corporate donations, and philanthropic giving. It seriously makes me question their rhetoric of helping children. If they really cared about kids, give back $600,000 and build libraries or feed the hungry, or just let KIPP and TFA keep it. But to live the life of the 1% as far removed as can be from actual children living in poverty and going on and on about how “poverty is not destiny” is pretty low.

    Just so you understand what that sacrifice might look like, the leadership of the Chicago Teachers Union gave back their increased union salaries and instead kept their current teaching salaries. They then used that extra money to hire extra organizers which helped empower the people of this city to fight the corporate greed that fuels our education policy. They are a symbol of what it means to really fight for kids…marching alongside them in their neighborhoods.

    • I think if TFA is so set on expanding, it ought to look at actually expanding INTO the neighborhoods it purports to serve. Help driven and intelligent local people get through through a bachelor’s degree program and teaching certification, then place them in local schools. Get folks who really know the communities and have a personal investment, and who are more likely to stay. More time and money up front, but it’s a long-term investment. Plus it’d hopefully make TFA less paternalistic as times goes on.

      • Tee

        There are a million and one things TFA could do with its resources to better serve low-income communities and help close the achievement gap. However, TFA has shown absolutely no interest in doing anything other than expanding its same, broken model.

      • Alison

        Parus: the TFA corps is far more diverse (i.e. representative of the communities TFA serves) than the overall teaching force in America. 38% of the 2012 corps are people of color, compared to 16% of the American teacher force as a whole. 35% of 2012 corps members are Pell Grant recipients (low-income), and one in four are first-generation college graduates. ONE IN FOUR – that is huge. To a much greater degree than the traditional education establishment, TFA is actually filling a need for people who are more likely to ‘get it’ and be even more deeply committed to equity by virtue of sharing various aspects of our students’ backgrounds.

        • Tee

          Those two populations (corps members and the American teacher force as a whole) really aren’t comparable, so the statistics are meaningless. If you want to compare two populations, you should compare the population of corps members with the population of teachers in the SAME schools, but who are not corps members.

  4. Interesting comments all around.

    “as long as TFA can convince corporations and donors its the best philanthropic bang for their buck, then what can we say?” Exactly. Increasingly, I think we’ll see other models that have the potential to supplant TFA. At which point, TFA will be forced to change. KatieO, I’d put the onus back onto “competitors.” What are ed schools, unions, and other entities doing to force TFA to change? TFA’s far from perfect, so prove it. You can’t say you have people just don’t listen. Make em listen by being better. We have yet to see that.

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