changing of the guard

Kopp, Teach for America's founder, shifts to international role

Teach for America’s founding CEO, Wendy Kopp (center), is being replaced by two top executives at the 23-year-old nonprofit. (Photo: Teach for America)

Nearly 24 years after first sketching out Teach for America in her undergraduate thesis, founding CEO Wendy Kopp is stepping down from running the organization, according to a decision that its board approved on Tuesday.

Kopp will instead focus on running Teach for All, the nonprofit she launched in 2007 to support organizations in other countries as they adopt the Teach for America model of recruiting and training strong teachers to work in high-need schools. Two dozen countries currently have Teach for All programs.

Kopp’s departure marks the start of a new phase for Teach for America, which grew from 500 teachers in 1990 to more than 10,000 in 46 regions today, including nearly a thousand in New York City, along the way jumpstarting a paradigm shift in teacher preparation. Nonprofit organizations are notorious for tending to struggle after their charismatic founders move on.

But Kopp’s successors have been steeped in her leadership. The group’s board chose Teach for America’s top executives, Matt Kramer and Elisa Villanueva Beard, to share the CEO position starting March 1. Kramer is the organization’s president, and Villanueva Beard — who was a Teach for America “corps member” in rural Texas — is its chief operating officer.

And Kopp will continue to influence the nonprofit’s vision and direction as the chair of its board. Kopp offered one hint of what that direction might look like in an open letter last month to Gary Rubinstein, a New York City teacher who entered the classroom through Teach for America but has been critical of it in the decades since.

Responding to Rubinstein’s charge that the organization promotes only certain ideas about how to improve schools, Kopp said she had always worked to create a “big tent” for ideas, in large part by not asserting her own in many cases (but not all). She wrote:

However, I’ve learned the hard way that silence just reinforces misunderstanding. Going forward, our goal is to show the plurality of opinion within our community and provide more outlets to challenge one another and share our best thinking.

I believe there is real misunderstanding about what opinions Teach For America wants to hear – misunderstanding we haven’t done enough to combat. When corps members and alumni assume their opinions defy conventional wisdom and no one wants to hear them, they often choose not to speak up. This becomes a self-perpetuating problem. The people who do speak up express similar views, which reinforces the impression that we all think one way and discourages dissenting opinions.

Changing this will require more than providing discussion forums – it involves the difficult work of changing culture. As you’ve noticed, over the past year we’ve made a concerted effort to do just that by encouraging honest engagement and debate on several platforms, both inside and outside the organization.

Kopp’s successors appear to be carrying out that vision. Among the pair’s first acts, according to a letter they sent to Teach for America’s participants and backers today, will be a “listening tour” to solicit guidance from teachers, alumni, and supporters.

To support the board and the co-CEOs during the transition, one board member, Richard Parsons, is becoming an “independent lead director.” Parsons is also the chair of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Education Reform Commission, whose first report last month included a recommendation to expand the use of alternative certification programs in New York State.

Kopp’s decision to run Teach for All full-time suggests that she no longer sees being New York City’s schools chancellor as “the best job in the world” after being Teach for America’s CEO.

Teach for America’s full press release is below. (Disclosure: GothamSchools’ board chair Sue Lehmann is on Teach for America’s national board.)

TEACH FOR AMERICA FOUNDER VOTED CHAIR OF THE BOARD
— Teach For America’s COO and President to become co-CEOs —

NEW YORK, NY – February 13, 2013 – In a vote yesterday, the Teach For America Board of Directors named CEO and founder Wendy Kopp as board chair, succeeding Walter Isaacson, who will become chair emeritus after more than seven years as chair. The board also appointed Matt Kramer and Elisa Villanueva Beard co-CEOs of Teach For America, effective March 1. Kopp will continue in her current role as founding CEO of Teach For All, a global network working to expand educational opportunity.

As board chair of Teach For America, Kopp will work closely with Villanueva Beard and Kramer to inform the organization’s strategic direction. She will develop and lead the national board of directors, cultivate external support, and provide advice and counsel to the leadership team.

“Today’s announcement reflects Teach For America’s strength. Our dramatic growth over the past few years calls for more leadership capacity to respond to growing needs and opportunities,” said Isaacson. “We are excited to elevate two proven leaders who have a lot more to contribute and free up our founder to focus on the areas where she can add the most unique value.”

Elisa Villanueva Beard and Matt Kramer have served as senior members of Teach For America’s leadership team for eight years, and this transition is a natural evolution of their existing responsibilities. As co-CEOs, they will be jointly accountable for the organization’s performance and will assume the leadership role in charting its strategic direction, developing its team and culture, building external relationships, and raising public awareness.

Elisa Villanueva Beard will oversee Teach For America’s regional operations and represent the organization publicly. A native of the Rio Grande Valley, Villanueva Beard joined Teach For America in 1998, teaching bilingual first and second grade in Phoenix for three years. She then spent four years as executive director of Teach For America’s Rio Grande Valley region, before joining the national staff as chief operating officer. In that position, she managed Teach For America’s now 46 regions, which are responsible for the placement and development of more than 10,000 corps members, fostering the leadership of their local alumni, and raising 80 percent of Teach For America’s funding.

“Having grown up in the Rio Grande Valley, my life’s work is fighting for educational justice for underserved kids in my hometown and across the country,” said Villanueva Beard. “I am honored to continue this work as co-CEO of Teach For America, an organization that I know has such deep potential to move us toward the day when all children have the opportunity to attain an excellent education. Matt and I look forward to working together to take Teach For America to the next level.”

Matt Kramer will manage all aspects of the central Teach For America structure, including recruiting and admissions, corps member training, administration, development, marketing and communications, and central programmatic support of the regions. Inspired by his wife’s experience as a corps member, Kramer originally joined Teach For America as chief program officer in 2005. He then moved into the role of president, where over the past five years he has helped oversee all aspects of Teach For America’s national operations, from growth and strategy to performance and organizational culture.

“I am thrilled to continue my partnership with Elisa, now as co-CEOs of Teach For America,” said Kramer. “Teach For America plays such an important role in developing the leadership our country needs to live up to our highest ideals, and Elisa and I are eager to continue the hard work of ensuring that all children in our country have the opportunity to reach their full potential. I am also excited that we will continue to benefit from Wendy Kopp’s extraordinary energy and wisdom in her new role as chair of the board.”

To ensure strong governance, the board has created a new role of independent lead director and has appointed Dick Parsons, former CEO and chairman of Time Warner, to this position. As chair of the board’s executive committee, he will help ensure the effectiveness of the board, support the development of the co-CEOs, and provide additional support in cultivating external relationships.

As CEO of Teach For All, Kopp leads a growing global network of independent organizations that, like Teach For America, are enlisting their countries’ most promising future leaders to become lifelong advocates for educational excellence and equality. Now in its sixth year, the Teach For All network includes organizations in 26 countries worldwide. In the coming years, Teach For All aims to build support for the growth of the network and its partners, and to accelerate the growth and progress of its partners by fostering learning, sharing, and innovation.

“It has been my privilege to serve as CEO of both Teach For America and Teach For All for more than five years,” said Kopp. “Today’s announcement helps ensure that each organization has the leadership capacity necessary to meet growing aspirations. Elisa and Matt are exceptional leaders and great partners. They have already contributed immeasurably to Teach For America’s growth and impact and I look forward to supporting them as they lead Teach For America into the future.”

About Teach For America
Teach For America works in partnership with communities to expand educational opportunity for children facing the challenges of poverty. Founded in 1990, Teach For America recruits and develops a diverse corps of outstanding individuals of all academic disciplines to commit two years to teach in high-need schools and become lifelong leaders in the movement to end educational inequity. Today more than 10,000 corps members are teaching in 46 urban and rural regions across the country, while nearly 28,000 alumni are working across sectors to ensure that all children have access to an excellent education. For more information, visit http://www.teachforamerica.org/ and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

state of the union

New York City teachers union braces for Supreme Court ruling that could drain money and members

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
UFT President Michael Mulgrew (standing) met with teachers during a school visit in 2014.

A few dozen labor leaders gathered recently at the the headquarters of New York City’s 187,000-member teachers union to hear a cautionary tale.

In a glass-walled conference room overlooking downtown Manhattan, United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew settled into a chair facing a colleague from Wisconsin. He asked the state teachers union president, Kim Kohlhaas, how her members have fared after an aggressive rollback of labor’s bargaining power there.

She described rampant teacher turnover, fewer job protections, and ballooning insurance and pension costs. In short, a union’s worst nightmare.

For the UFT, Wisconsin is a harbinger of what could result from a Supreme Court case known as Janus, which revolves around the ability of public unions to collect mandatory fees. Oral arguments begin on Feb. 26, and the decision, which is expected in a matter of months, could dramatically alter the landscape for unions across the country.

The impact will be felt especially by the UFT, the largest union local in the country. If the court rules that teachers are not required to pay for its services, the union is likely to shed members and money — a war chest that has allowed the UFT to be a major player in New York politics and to secure robust benefits for its members.

“This is dangerous stuff we’re getting into now,” Mulgrew told Chalkbeat. “They’re trying to take away people’s ability to come together, to stand up and have a voice.”

While the case deals with different issues than Wisconsin’s anti-union policies did, New York City labor leaders say the limits on their membership and funding would weaken their ability to fight against further restrictions on their organizing and bargaining power.

In anticipation of the ruling, union leaders have reportedly already considered downsizing their operations. And they have undertaken a preemptive information and recruitment campaign to hold onto members — who, soon, may be free to choose whether to keep supporting the union financially.

“Much as I oppose Janus, it’s kind of a wake up call for entrenched union leadership,” New York City teacher Arthur Goldstein blogged recently. “People need reasons to pay, and it’s on leadership to provide them.”

At issue is whether public unions can continue to charge “agency fees,” which are payments collected from people who are not members. Sometimes called a “fair share” fee, it is meant to help unions cover the cost of bargaining contracts that cover all workers, regardless of whether they are union members. Only a fraction of New York City teachers currently opt out of the union and pay the agency fees rather than dues — but experts expect many more teachers could leave the union if the Supreme Court bans the fees.

Mark Janus, a government employee in Illinois, is challenging the fee on the grounds that it violates his right to free speech. The Supreme Court deadlocked on a similar case in 2016 after the sudden death of Justice Antonin Scalia. With Neil Gorsuch now on the bench, observers expect a conservative-leaning court will side with Janus. If that happens, workers covered by unions — including the UFT — will be able to opt out of paying the fees that help keep the unions in operation.

“What that means is there will be a lot of teachers — potentially a lot of teachers in New York — who do not invest in the union,” said Evan Stone, co-founder of the teacher advocacy group Educators for Excellence. “There will be potential growth in free riders who are benefiting from the work of the union without contributing to it.”

That’s why the UFT is kicking into action. The union has trained scores of members to knock on doors and talk to fellow teachers about the case. In about two months, the union estimates its members have knocked on 11,000 doors, sharing stories about how the union has helped them and hoping to convince teachers to keep financially supporting the work, even if the courts decide they’re no longer required to.

Union leaders are also launching “membership teams” in every school. Tasked with “building a sense of unity,” the union is asking the teams to engage in personal conversations with members, and plan shows of support for the union. Stone said his organization is organizing focus groups across the city to inform members about the case.

New York City teachers automatically become union members. They pay about $117 a month in dues, while social workers, paraprofessionals, and members in other school roles pay different amounts. Members can also choose to contribute to a separate political fund, which the union uses to lobby lawmakers and support union-friendly candidates.

About 2,000 educators opt-out of the union and pay agency fees instead — which are the same amount as regular dues, according to a UFT spokesman.

Ken Girardin, who has studied the potential fallout of Janus for New York’s unions as an analyst for the right-leaning Empire Center for Public Policy, said the number of agency-fee payers is low compared to other unions. But the Janus case could change that.

Girardin looked at what happened after Michigan enacted a “right to work” law, which forbid mandatory agency fees. The result: The Michigan Education Association, among the state’s largest unions, saw a 20 percent drop in dues and fees. Among full-time teachers, membership declined by 18 percent.

Girardin estimates an equivalent decrease in New York would mean the state’s teachers unions would take a $49 million hit annually. The UFT relies on dues and agency fees for about 85 percent of its $185 million budget, according to federal documents.

“It means they’d have to make up a course change,” Girardin told Chalkbeat, referring to the potential impact of the Janus decision. “They would have to treat their members like customers instead of people who are going to pay them regardless.”

Behind the scenes, the union is reportedly making contingency plans to deal with the potential budgetary fall-out. The New York Post recently cited unnamed sources who said union leadership is considering reducing the staff at some of its borough offices and cutting back on discretionary spending.

Girardin said public-sector unions in New York have already begun to fight for state legislation that would make it harder for members to drop out — a potential work-around in case the court sides with Janus.

Some UFT members say the threat of Janus is already being felt. The union recently voted down a resolution to support Black Lives Matter after leadership said it was a divisive issue at a time when the union can’t afford to lose members, according to an NY1 report.

Rosie Frascella, a Brooklyn high school teacher who helped organized Black Lives Matter at School events across the city, said she was disappointed in the leadership’s decision. But despite those internal disagreements, she said the threat posed by Janus should compel all teachers to speak out in support of their unions.

“You need to be in a union because it protects your right to teach,” she said. “And it stands up for our students and it creates the schools our children deserve.”

after parkland

As Trump doubles down on call to give teachers guns, the growing #ArmMeWith movement offers an alternative

Counselors, time, diverse classroom libraries, money — these are some of many things American teachers say they need in their schools instead of guns.

The pleas are coming via a social media hashtag, #ArmMeWith, that has spread quickly this week as teachers grapple with the aftermath of last week’s school shooting in Parkland, Florida.

Some lawmakers and advocates — including President Donald Trump — have responded to the shooting by arguing that teachers should be armed. That idea has drawn scorn from educators who argue that more guns in schools would make students less safe and do little to address the underlying issues that contribute to violence in schools.

Now thousands of those educators are offering an alternative, using a template that two teachers shared on Instagram on Tuesday. Olivia Bertels and Brittany Wheaton already had substantial social media followings when they asked others to join them in starting a movement.

“My friend @thesuperheroteacher and I think that we should find more practical solutions than giving teachers guns,” Bertels wrote on her post with the template, where she asked to be armed with school supplies. “I hope you’ll take the same stance.”

More than 5,000 people so far have done exactly that on Instagram, and the hashtag is also trending on Twitter, bringing educators together in a cross-country conversation.

“I wish we didn’t have to do this,” wrote one Texas teacher, HowsonHistory, in a comment on a Rhode Island teacher’s post. “But am so glad that so many teachers are. Maybe soon we will be listened to.”

Here are some of the posts that have caught our eye.

“We, the teachers, have a few ideas.”

“#armmewith not guns, but counselors who do not double as test administrators and more than one overbooked, crowded therapist option for families with Medicaid and social workers without overloaded caseloads.”

“#armmewith the liberation of our students, a microphone to speak out against the policies you make from people who aren’t teachers, resources to empower our children, and love to keep our babies safe. We refuse to be armed with guns. #teachingwhilemuslim”

“Because there are so many other things to be arming ourselves with that will do more good than harm. I choose to #armMeWith kindness not violence and teach my students to do the same #jointhemovement”

“I took my first teaching job the year Sandy Hook happened. And the thing is, in that year and in all the years I have been a teacher since, I have stood in my classroom too many times and wondered where I would put my children if someone came into my classroom with a gun. I have stood on playgrounds and in hallways with dozens of students and wondered what would be the best action to take. I have sat through too many of my lunch breaks with my colleagues hashing over the best strategy for protecting our students. There has to be change. Teachers and students deserve to work and learn in peace. #armmewith #thingsteachersshouldnothavetosay”