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You Winz Some, You Yinz Some: Pittsburgh Gives TFA, Corporate Education Agenda the Boot


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The Pittsburgh Board of Education has voted in favor of rejecting a three-year, $750,000 contract with Teach for America (TFA), effectively giving the pro-corporate education group the boot from the city.  

TFA’s business model relies on signing recent college graduates to two-year contracts and sending them to underserved school districts to teach.  Public school advocates view their model as a disservice to the students in these districts due to a lack of training time and high turnover rates.

After “education reform” cuts followed the 2010 election of Gov. Tom Corbett, many Pennsylvania cities welcomed TFA and groups like it, placing charter school proponents into prominent positions.  Now, Pittsburgh has done the opposite.

The city has felt the growing pressure of budget cuts just like Philadelphia, but Pittsburgh’s ability to elect its own school board has resulted in a grassroots movement to protect the public school system.

In early 2013, four of the nine members of the Board of Education announced their retirement.  The response was citizen activism to endorse and promote candidates who would do what was best for the public school system.  In These Times explains:

…several labor, interfaith and social justice groups came together to promote candidates who support education justice and to host public forums to help educate the public about the candidates. That coalition subsequently formed Great Public Schools Pittsburgh (GPSP). Throughout the months leading up to the general election, GPSP met with the candidates to share concerns about the trend toward privatization.

The most dramatic fruit of their labor has been the end of the TFA contract. The lame-duck board had approved the contract by a 6-3 vote, but the new board voted 6-2 (with one abstention) to cancel it.

The response is simple to decipher: The people of Pittsburgh want creative solutions for education problems, not cookie cutter temporary fixes that follow the corporate education agenda.  After voting against the contract in December, Board of Education member Sylvia Wilson told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: “I don’t see Teach for America as a program to help us. I think we have to change our own minds and how we see our district as a whole and not just individual schools.”

The constant turnover promoted by TFA does not provide long-term answers.  This became a major factor in the election of progressive Mayor Bill Peduto who made the city’s commitment to public schools a central theme of his winning campaign.  Among Peduto’s early supporters was Jessie Ramey, a founder of Great Public Schools Pittsburgh (GPSP) and a mother of two.  She helped craft Peduto’s post-election education policies.  Her commitment to making public schools better in Pittsburgh goes hand-in-hand with rejecting the philosophies of TFA.  Ramey told In These Times: “We should be making schools welcoming, wonderful environments where both students and teachers want to be every day. Bringing in new people and contributing to constant churn within the school is not the way to do it.”

Ramey has been a major force in public education since debates began on how to move forward after Corbett’s 2011 budget cuts.  She founded the blog Yinzercation which focuses on the problems facing schools in Southwestern Pennsylvania.

Among GPSP’s chief missions is the reestablishment of schools as the lifeblood of communities. Ramey defines this as:

“…making each of our schools the hub of its community, and bringing resources into each school based on what it needs. The community model is less of a model and more of a mindset. People believe that, by investing in schools, they’re investing in their community. They’re throwing their arms around each school and saying, ‘We’re not going to let it close. We’re going to get everything in this building that we need.’ ”

Again, this change was possible in Pittsburgh because the city allows its citizens to elect its school board.  This simple fact is often lost in the privatization debate.  If members are appointed rather than elected there is little chance at public recourse when a mayor, whose political standing may have benefited from corporate education group donations, fills the Board of Education with privatizers. This should be a focal point of public school defense moving forward: school board election over appointments.


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