The Democratic presidential candidates may seem, at first glance, to have positions, which are drearily the same. But one area where they differ sharply is on charter schools. Senator Bernie Sanders has the harshest position, as he calls for a moratorium on nonprofit charters and a ban on for-profit ones. Both Senator Elizabeth Warren and former Vice President Joe Biden have been critical of the charter school movement.

But other Democrats see charter schools more favorably. The education website Chalkbeat reports that when Senator Cory Booker was mayor of Newark, New Jersey, he raised $200 million for newly-created charter schools, and these schools did better on standardized tests than more traditional public schools did.

Another supporter of charter schools is Beto O’Rourke. The Texas Tribune reports that O’Rourke’s wife, Amy O’Rourke, created and ran the La Fe Preparatory School, a charter, in El Paso for several years.

So even though only seven percent of America’s children attend charter schools, they’re likely to be a subject of vigorous debate in the 2020 presidential contest. ProPublica reporter Annie Waldman touches on this debate in her article about charter schools, Teach for America, and the Walton Family Foundation.

I previously wrote about whether Teach for America had been captured by the left. Waldman’s piece isn’t about ideology, but about whether or not Teach for America and the charter school movement are allies.

Her one piece of news is about a $20.6 million two-year grant the Walton Family Foundation made to Teach for America in 2013. It was known that the grant was to support Teach for America’s activities in nine cities. But what wasn’t reported was that the grant would have two levels of compensation. In the letter signed by Walton Family Foundation CEO Buddy Philpot, the grant would provide Teach for America “$6,000 per CM (corps member) in public charter schools, and $4,000 per CM in traditional public schools.”

Teach for America CEO Elisa Villeneuva Beard says that no one funder provides more than five percent of her nonprofit’s budget and that placement of teachers in schools is determined by local needs, not by a national policy. But Waldman reports that, in 2018, just about 40 percent of the nearly 7,000 teachers placed by Teach for America went to charter schools. By contrast, in 2008 only 18 percent of Teach for America placements were in charter schools.

As for the Walton Family Foundation, they say in subsequent grant awards to Teach for America, that they provide equal reimbursement rates for charter and private schools. The foundation’s program officer for K-12 education, Marc Sternberg, is a Teach for America alumnus who worked in the South Bronx in the late 1990s.

Waldman also shows there’s a lot of overlap between people who worked for Teach for America and people who back education reform through charter schools. The KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) charter schools were started by two Teach for America alumni. KIPP says that as of 2012 about a third of the teachers they hired worked for Teach for America (they wouldn’t provide more recent statistics). Louisiana’s superintendent of education, John White, is a Teach for America alumnus who is leading the effort to ensure that, by 2022, New Orleans will be the first city in the U.S. where all the schools are charters. In Tennessee, both the current superintendent of education, Penny Schwinn, and her predecessor were Teach for America alumni and charter school advocates.

Moreover, many of Teach for America’s funders also support charter schools, including retired Silicon Valley entrepreneur Arthur Rock, Eli Broad, and Greg Penner, Walmart’s chairman of the board, who married into the Walton family. Waldman calculates that Rock, Broad, and Penner, and their family foundations both support charter schools and have collectively donated $200 million to Teach for America.
“There are only so many donors and Teach for America is probably going after all of them,” says Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp.

Waldman went to Los Angeles to talk to Teach for America graduates currently teaching in Los Angeles public schools. She found that the Teach for America graduates assigned to traditional public schools ended up teaching special education, probably the most demanding job schoolteachers have. The ones assigned to charter schools have more flexibility.

Joy McCreary graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles in 2018, and is happy she was placed in a charter school for middle schoolers. At traditional public schools, she says, “you get these old, battle-ax teachers who have been there every year and who are doing the same things every year.”

One area of conflict is whether schools should pay Teach for America the finder’s fee of up to $6,000 for placing a graduate in a public school. Teach for America was paid $110 million in finders’ fees between 2013-17.

A bill introduced in the California State Assembly this year by Democrat Cristina Garcia would ban finder’s fees and mandate that Teach for America graduates teach in California public schools for five years. Teach for America requires a two-year commitment. The bill died in committee but should be reintroduced this year.

Should we be bothered that many of the same donors back both Teach for America and charter schools? Martin Levine, writing in Nonprofit Quarterly, says that Waldman’s piece could show “the power” of Teach for America’s “largest donors to hijack and steer” the organization towards charter schools.  

I’m not as bothered as Levine by the funding Waldman reports. What she shows is that centrist funders interested in education reform have two causes to back instead of one. Teach for America and charter schools are forming an alliance, but that’s not the same as a merger.

Annie Waldman documented an interesting funding trend and I hope she follows up on her piece in a few years to see how the relations between Teach for America and charter schools have changed.