Held last year in Baltimore, the Leadership for Educational Equity's African American Political Leadership Program was designed to support its members who are considering a run for elected office.

Courtesy of Leadership for Educational Equity

After a Devastating Scandal, Can Reformers Clean Up Atlanta’s Schools?

They’re young, smart and driven. And they’re all alumni of Teach for America. For this quartet of school board members, reshaping a district plagued by cheating is the ultimate test — for them and the organization that trained them.

On April 2, 2013, wearing a pearl necklace and earrings, Atlanta’s former school superintendent Beverly Hall tilted her head for a mug shot. After a state investigation into cheating on standardized tests, a grand jury had indicted the one-time “National Superintendent of the Year,” along with 34 principals, teachers and testing coordinators, for posting illegitimate gains in struggling schools. In total, 185 educators were implicated in the scandal.

A jury eventually delivered 11 convictions on racketeering charges; Hall herself died of breast cancer before standing trial. But the sight of the district’s top employee marching into the Fulton County jail had a more immediate effect: Four young Teach for America (TFA) alumni all made bids to run in the school board race, just seven months away. The former TFA corps members included an incumbent — Courtney English, 31, a Morehouse alum who’d taught seventh-grade social studies in the same Northwest Atlanta classroom where he’d once taken the class — and three newcomers: Matt Westmoreland, 29, a high school history teacher whose father served as a county judge; Jason Esteves, 33, a lawyer from Texas running to be the board’s only Latino representative; and Eshe’ Collins, 36, also a lawyer with a passion for early childhood education.

Opponents warned of “a shadow conspiracy aimed at turning [Atlanta Public Schools] into an all-charter system,” as the city’s alt-weekly described it. Yet the fresh faces promised to fix a system that had lost its constituents’ trust. Despite only having served one term, English’s vision for comprehensive services, vocal calls for transparency during the cheating scandal and backing from TFA’s political arm won him Atlanta voters’ approval. He credits a mission of “keep[ing] it about the kids” for racking up his 23-point margin of victory. Esteves and Collins both triumphed in runoffs. (Westmoreland went unchallenged.) When the board, stacked with six new members, sat for their first meeting, a crowd of 200 admirers erupted in a standing ovation. English was unanimously selected leader — making him, at 28 years old, the youngest chairman in the district’s history. “It was a brand-new day in APS,” English recalls.

Far from the national spotlight, these four school board officials define Teach for America’s long-term strategy. The stated goal of the nonprofit, which placed 3,400 recent college grads in struggling public schools this year alone, is not to recruit career educators. (Indeed, you won’t find the word “teaching” anywhere in TFA’s mission statement.) Rather, the organization seeks to groom “future leaders” who will head a nationwide “movement for educational equity and excellence.” That coalition takes shape when former corps members, like English and Westmoreland, step away from the chalkboard and run for elected office.

The board’s decisions in Atlanta — where the newly elected seized a rare “opportunity to press the restart button on a school system,” as Esteves puts it — afford the clearest view of TFA’s mission in practice. In the South’s biggest city, the organization proved its former teachers could win elections and reshape an entire district. In 2015, the first full school year after the new board’s arrival, graduation rates shot up by 12 points. Meanwhile, charter enrollments since 2013 also increased by one-third. Whether those reforms have been effective or not will be judged by the voters in 2017.

A MOVEMENT FOR FAIRNESS

Critics regularly lob attacks against Teach for America for turnover among its ranks of new teachers. But these opponents misunderstand the purpose of the 27-year-old organization. “All you have to do is teach in today’s schools to realize we will never solve this problem [of educational inequality] from within the classrooms alone. … We actually think some of these folks have to leave,” Wendy Kopp, TFA’s founder, told Bloomberg Businessweek in 2012. “We have a whole strategy around not only providing folks with the foundational experience during their two years with us, but also then accelerating their leadership in ways that is strategic for the broader education reform movement.” If TFA members are in law firms, hedge funds and hospitals, Westmoreland explains, their classroom experience will inform their decisions, the “things they might invest time and money in,” widening the coalition of those who care about schools beyond the people directly involved, like teachers and parents.

This long-term goal is instilled in corps members from the very first week of TFA’s summer training institute. “Before you start teaching, they’re already talking about your work as alumni,” says T. Jameson Brewer, a former corps member who’s since co-authored a book critical of TFA. Brewer recalled the executive director of the Atlanta branch saying he wanted TFA alums in leadership positions at all levels, from a high percentage of new principal hires and every seat on the local school board, all the way up to a sitting Supreme Court justice. (The director asked Brewer, who’d previously managed a gubernatorial campaign, to throw his name in to the school board race. He declined.)

Brewer questions whether the experience gained with TFA qualifies a person for those roles. “The idea is that you give these folks some manufactured expertise, that being a teacher in the trenches for two years somehow makes them an expert in policy or leadership,” he says. “For most people, I think that should be very troubling.”

Despite any qualms voters might have, TFA has proved very effective at propelling a number of its teachers into leadership positions. Leveraging assets worth $440 million and a 46,000-member alumni network, TFA alums currently occupy the offices of the state superintendent in Louisiana and North Carolina, the state education board in Nevada, the school board president’s chair in Los Angeles and seats on the board in Chicago, San Jose and Stockton, Calif.

Most of that work can be traced back to TFA’s sister organization, Leadership for Educational Equity (LEE), a nonpartisan leadership-development program for former corps members founded in 2007. The nonprofit group, which is keen to note it does not endorse any specific policy prescriptions, organizes some 30,000 alums to translate their TFA experience into laws and regulations, whether it’s mobilizing voters through grassroots campaigns, attending summer fellowships, mentoring younger members or sharing policy ideas at conferences. A select few actually run themselves, and they’re supported by LEE’s donors and consultants. Nationwide, there’s now over a hundred LEE members in elected office, organizing roles and policy-making positions.

“Today, there are many children in our country not receiving the education they deserve, and for a long time a movement has been building to address this problem in a systemic way,” says Michael Buman, LEE’s executive director. “This movement is diverse in many ways; it includes students, parents, teachers, advocates, and many, many others. LEE develops the leadership of Teach for America corps members and alumni to be a part of this movement.”

In the run up to the 2013 election in Atlanta, the organization gave the equivalent of $4,300 in services to the school-board campaigns. Simultaneously, money flowed in from Arthur Rock, a venture capitalist and partner in a charter-school management company; Rebecca Ledley, whose husband Charles, a hedge-fund manager, started Democrats for Education Reform; and Joel Klein, the former head of New York City schools.

A TURNAROUND PLAN

LEE’s public support, however small the contribution, drew fierce criticism. Diane Ravitch, an education historian at New York University, wrote in a blog post, “At some point, TFA will be recognized as a crucial cog in the rightwing effort to destroy public education and dismantle the teaching profession,” a contention she stood by when NationSwell checked in with her recently, deriding TFA as “the workforce for charters.”

The four TFA alumni, for their part, adamantly maintained they would not bow to anyone who pulled out their checkbook. (“We’re not going to jump in there and hand over control of the school system to some for-profit charter monster,” Westmoreland told the AJC during the 2013 campaign, adding, “If they come at me with an idea that I don’t think is in the best interest of everyone in the city, I’m going to say no.”) And they took umbrage at the idea that their TFA experience automatically connects them with a pro-charter agenda. “Most people underestimate the difference of opinions in the alumni base,” Esteves says, pointing to fellow corps members who oppose school reform. “TFA does not impact whether I go one way or the other. What it does is give me that perspective that everything I do impacts kids.”

True to their word, English and Westmoreland can hardly be accused of straight up selling out the district to private managers. While the total share of Atlanta students in charters has risen, it’s largely because those approved by previous boards continue to add grades each year, Westmoreland explains. Under their watch, the total number of charter schools has actually decreased by two. The board declined to renew the contract for Intown Charter due to struggling academic performance, and it refused to bail out Atlanta Latin Academy Charter, which went belly-up after half a million went missing in a suspected theft.

But on the flip side, they’ve made it easier for future charters to set up shop in the city. In their first major decision, they hired Dr. Meria Carstarphen, who’d previously led schools in Texas, as superintendent. The turnaround plan she proposed this year included giving control of the city’s five worst schools to charter operators. She’d tried the idea once before in Austin, where she pushed for an in-district charter to take over an elementary school. Yet a single year into the plan, the charter’s contract was promptly cancelled, after parents staged a revolt and booted the experiment’s supporters from the school board.

Westmoreland says he signed on to Carstarphen’s idea after talking with fellow corps members at an LEE conference in Washington, D.C. — a gathering where TFA alums who’ve crossed over into politics share “war stories,” as English puts it. In January 2014, Westmoreland chatted with representatives from Nashville, who’d created a hybrid model of a neighborhood school managed by an outside operator in 2011. The primary criticism against charters is that they appear to achieve higher results by taking the most motivated students out of district schools, then kicking out underperfomers. (English calls it “creaming the top and skimming the bottom.”) Nashville, by forcing the charter to accept every student within a fixed attendance zone, seemed to have stumbled on a new model that prevents an operator from cooking its numbers.

Despite an outcry over the swiftness with which Carstarphen enacted her plan — “The community feels like it’s being sold out,” one parent remarked — the proposal, backed by Westmoreland, won unanimous approval from the board. Its passage marked the first time a charter was hired to run a neighborhood school in Georgia. So far, Westmoreland reports, the school’s seen better attendance and fewer disciplinary issues under its new management.

Atlanta school board member Courtney English speaks at the Governing for Impact summit in Washington, D.C., in 2015. Courtesy of Leadership for Educational Equity

Would English like to see more charters open in the district? He won’t say. “Parents want good schools, period. If you’re a parent, you’re not thinking about the politics of education reform. You’re asking, ‘How can I help my third-grader get the best education possible?’ And I think when we speak to that, the other stuff becomes noise,” he says. “I’m not for more of one thing or the other. It is how you get more good schools faster” of any kind, he adds.

A CALLING TO HIGHER OFFICE

Next year, Atlanta’s Teach for America network will set its sights on a higher office, as both Westmoreland and English plan to run for Atlanta’s city council. In November, Westmoreland, who currently oversees programming to prevent summer learning loss at a nonprofit, will compete for an open seat, while English, now chief education officer of an ed-tech company, will duel with an incumbent councilman. Both will try to capitalize on a number of accomplishments during their school board tenure.

Westmoreland, as chair of the budget committee, is particularly proud of redirecting money away from administrators in the central office, hitting a high of 66 cents on every dollar being devoted to classroom use. He also won goodwill by providing teachers long overdue raises that had been frozen after the economic downturn in 2008.

English can also point to some big budget wins. This spring, voters approved a penny sales tax, which is expected to bring in $464 million to fund school construction. He also settled a longstanding dispute with Atlanta’s BeltLine over $162 million the school system was owed for its share of property tax diverted to funding the 22-mile loop. Another boast for English: a jump in graduation rates. When he joined the board in 2009, just over half of students graduated; in the seven years since, that number has jumped to 71 percent. (Part of this improvement resulted from doing away with exit exams as a graduation requirement; statewide, the rate increased 6 percent after the change.)

With those accomplishments under their belts, it’s a little surprising that English and Westmoreland still talk up their TFA experience, when the issue has proven polarizing. In highlighting their service, the debate becomes a referendum on Wendy Kopp’s idea; the men’s political capital rises and falls as the organization’s does. Their explanation? That TFA profoundly affected their worldview, and both now feel the obligation to give credit where it’s due.

English says TFA gave him an “opportunity to give back to the city that had given so much to me.” Westmoreland agrees. “I wouldn’t be on the school board and I wouldn’t have become a teacher if it weren’t for Teach for America. That organization and the experience I had at Carver [a public high school] and on the board really instilled in me how important this concept of equity is,” he says. “My takeaway is that if Teach for America’s idea was how to put passionate folks in the classroom, LEE’s was what we do with them if they choose to leave it. Either way, it’s how to make sure that whatever they do, they’re always thinking of equity.”

Chris Peak is a staff writer for NationSwell. He previously worked for Newsday, the San Francisco Public Press and the Point Reyes Light. Contact him at chris@nationswell.com.