Teach for America fields political candidates

Former Massachusetts Gov. and Republican candidate for president Mitt Romney (C) and music producer and educator Kenneth Gamble (R) tour Universal Bluford Charter School on May 24, 2012 in Philadelphia, Pa. Romney took part in a roundtable discussion and toured classrooms.

Stacey Vanek Smith: Teach for America -- the program that recruits recent college grads to work in underperforming schools -- is making a push into the political arena. Former TFA grads, as they're known, have won seats in state houses and on local school boards.

WPLN's Blake Farmer has more on a tight race in Nashville.


Blake Famer: Teach for America has all the ingredients to become a political powerhouse. There are thousands of bright, young college grads -- often from elite universities -- who can be tapped as campaign foot soldiers.

At a recent candidate forum in Nashville, current and former corps members pass out T-shirts supporting one of their own. Candidate John Haubenreich worked for TFA in Newark, N.J. He’s now an attorney who sees public office as an extension of his time teaching high school English.

John Haubenreich: It’s producing a generation of leaders who know what it’s like to teach in an urban classroom like that.

Teach for America is encouraging its alums to run. In 2008, the organization spun off Leadership for Educational Equity. The separate non-profit prepares former corps members for public office, and it’s had some success in the Colorado and Maryland state legislatures.

Perhaps it was only a matter of time, but now Teach for America is fielding enough candidates that two have shown up in the same race.

Haubenreich: As an official organization, they’re having an interesting policy quandary as to what to do.

In a campaign to unseat Nashville’s school board chair, Haubenreich is joined by Elissa Kim, who taught in New Orleans. She stayed on with TFA and is now the chief recruiter. She’s gotten fundraising help from her TFA colleagues, including the CEO herself. But she downplays the affiliation.

Elissa Kim: At the end of the day, right, like what I’m for are great schools.

Kim is not the first TFA employee to run for school board, but her day job does create a potential conflict. In the more than 40 cities where TFA works, school boards pay the organization to come to town. Kim says she has nothing to do with those contracts.

Kim: Regardless I would recuse myself from any discussion or decision involving Teach for America because Teach for America will stand on its own merits, or not.

So far, the local school system has been impressed with TFA, increasing the number of recruits it hires each year. But hiring more Teach for America alums for public office, that’s up to the voters.

In Nashville, I’m Blake Farmer for Marketplace. 

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