How school privatization hawks Teach For America promote Israel

20 August 2013

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Dozens of schools have been closed and approximately 850 teachers and staffers have lost their jobs in Chicago, a boon to Teach For America. (sierraromeo/Flickr)

Teach For America (TFA) is best known for dispatching hundreds of idealistic college graduates to work in inner cities across the United States each year, but it also sends selected members on free, religious-themed tours of Israel.

Called The Reality Israel Experience, the TFA-sponsored trips bring idealistic young American teachers into contact with Israeli politicians and military personnel while “introducing [TFA] corps members to Israel’s education and social justice systems.”

According to testimonies featured on Reality Israel’s official website, participants are at times led by a “military tour guide,” visit with Israeli military educators at an army base “near Jerusalem” (in the occupied West Bank?), and enjoy “ATV off-roading all over the Golan Heights,” an Israeli-occupied region of Syria.

The Reality Israel Experience is largely a project of Lynn Schusterman, the wealthy widow of the oil and gas tycoon Charles Schusterman. Since taking control of her husband’s fortune, she has established a reputation as one of America’s most aggressive backers of pro-Israel campus advocacy, funding campus-oriented ventures like Birthright Israel and The David Project.

As publicly-funded, privately-operated charter schools expand their reach and their wealthy advocates gain increasing influence over public education, boundaries between religion and state have blurred. This has opened avenues for ideologues like Schusterman to advance their political and religious agenda among a population of needy and impressionable children.

With an eye on promoting Israel advocacy in public schools, Schusterman has begun injecting millions into TFA, the advance guard of the education privatization movement.

Backed by billionaires

Since its birth in 1990, TFA has become a Wall Street-backed behemoth at the forefront of a movement that is rapidly placing large sectors of America’s public education into private hands.

With at least $350 million in assets, including substantial support from billionaires like Bill Gates, Eli Broad and the heirs to the Walmart fortune, TFA has taken advantage of education reforms introduced under President George W. Bush and accelerated under the administration of Barack Obama. Thousands of its corps members are being moved into cities where certified, union-affiliated teachers are being laid off by the thousands.

Unlike certified teachers, TFA members must only complete a five-week summer training program before they enter the classroom. They work for lower salaries than certified teachers and must accept weaker health and pension benefits, a prime arrangement for libertarian-minded governors and mayors seeking to hollow out the public sector.

Since TFA requires only a two-year commitment from its teachers, more than half of TFA members leave their positions after a brief stint in the classroom. Some take advantage of a TFA partnership with Goldman Sachs to seek jobs at the investment firm, which recently paid much of a $247 million settlement with homeowners victimized by foreclosure abuse.

As a revolving cast of inexperienced, culturally uninitiated teachers drift in and out of inner city classrooms, many schools have been thrown into chaos.

Dissent is building within the ranks of TFA, with some veterans openly conceding that they were used as foot soldiers in a concerted assault on unions and public schooling.

But the organization’s recruitment efforts remain strong; over 10,000 members hold TFA jobs across the country, taking advantage of opportunities for personal advancement not available to their certified colleagues.

Among the most coveted perks available to TFA members is Reality Israel, an all-expenses-paid, ten-day tour of the Holy Land. Unfortunately, not every teacher has what it takes to qualify.

Embracing Israeli discrimination

Though a few gentiles have been accepted to Reality Israel, its application process clearly offers preferential consideration to Jews. According to Reality Israel’s website, participants are required to “have affiliations with or interests in Jewish life.” Such language is likely to deter non-Jews, especially Muslim and Arab TFA members.

The criteria for acceptance seems to contradict TFA’s stated non-discrimination charter, which claims to adhere to “a policy of equal treatment and opportunity in every aspect of its relations with its applicants, corps members, and staff members.”

Even if they are accepted to a Reality Israel trip, Arab and Muslim-American teachers may be denied entry to Israel by the country’s interior ministry, which deports as many as 100 American citizens per year, mostly for unexplained “security” reasons. Tellingly, most Americans rejected for admittance through Israel-controlled frontiers are non-Jews — Muslims, Arabs and non-Jewish peace activists.

One of the most highly publicized deportation cases was that of Nour Joudah, a 25-year-old Palestinian-American teacher at the Quaker-affiliated Friends School in the occupied city of Ramallah.

Last January, when Joudah attempted to return to Ramallah after a trip to Jordan, she was interrogated by Israeli security officers and sent back.

A month later, when she tried to enter again, she was detained and asked to list the names of every Palestinian she knew in order to build surveillance files for the Israeli security agency Shin Bet. When Joudah refused, Israeli forces deported her.

“As far as my students,” Joudah told The Electronic Intifada after her deportation, “they’ve been following everything, every minute, and they are totally devastated.”

TFA national spokesperson Steve Mancini responded to my question about whether Reality Israel’s admissions policy squares with TFA’s non-discrimination charter by claiming that Reality Israel is “open to all Teach For America corps members, regardless of their ethnicity and religion (see eligibility requirements). While the trip is designed for those who have affiliations or interests in the Jewish community, a significant number of accepted applicants do not identify as Jewish. During their two weeks in Israel, participants are exposed to a variety of different perspectives on equity and social justice.”

Mancini added that TFA provides “identity-based leadership experiences” to other corps members, including summits for African-American males and Latino staff and alumni.

He did not respond to my questions about whether TFA was aware that Reality Israel participants tour through territory illegally occupied by Israel.

“Replace parts of the local culture”

According to Adam Simon, who helps oversee Reality Israel trips as associate national director of the Schusterman Foundation, Israel presents TFA corps members with “a microcosm of all the issues we have in the US, the same challenges around minority populations, the transfer of knowledge between generations, the opportunity disparity.”

In this peculiar reading of shared US-Israeli values, the mostly African-American communities (“minority populations”) that TFA operates within assume the role of Palestinians, a restive “challenge” to the enlightened, orderly Israeli majority, while the mostly white, highly educated TFA members are designated as civilizers imparting their values to the backwards natives.

Many TFA members work in charter schools like the Harlem Children’s Zone and Knowledge Is Power Program’s No Excuses program, which was founded by TFA alumni.

These schools operate according to a model “that teaches students not just how to think, but also how to act according to what are commonly termed traditional, middle-class values,” according to David Whitman, now the lead speechwriter for US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. “[While] these schools reinforce middle-class mores, they also steadfastly suppress all aspects of street culture,” Whitman explained approvingly, marveling at the strict regime of discipline imposed on the black and brown students.

In a disturbing op-ed that likened residents of Harlem to Voodoo-practicing Haitian earthquake victims, the neoconservative New York Times columnist David Brooks echoed Whitman, cheering paternalistic charter schools for rooting out African-American cultural traditions through the imposition of “middle class” values (“The underlying tragedy,” 14 January 2010).

“It’s time to promote locally led paternalism …,” Brooks wrote, “… the programs that really work involve intrusive paternalism. These programs, like the Harlem Children’s Zone and the No Excuses schools, are led by people who figure they don’t understand all the factors that have contributed to poverty, but they don’t care. They are going to replace parts of the local culture with a highly demanding, highly intensive culture of achievement — involving everything from new child-rearing practices to stricter schools to better job performance.”

Brooks concluded that the only way to enforce change on “progress-resistant cultural influences” was through “major traumas” like earthquakes.

A union-busting “colonial project”

Though no earthquake struck inner-city America as Brooks apparently wished, the destructive impact of Hurricane Katrina prompted the firing of 7,500 education workers in New Orleans, the conversion of most of the city’s schools to charters, and a nearly 20 percent decline in the share of black teachers working in the district. Meanwhile, TFA expanded its operations in the city, moving about 300 new members into teaching positions.

“I think the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina,” US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan remarked.

In Chicago, where Mayor Rahm Emanuel has shuttered nearly fifty public schools, mostly in predominately African-American neighborhoods, approximately 850 teachers and staffers have lost their jobs. The man-made disaster has been a boon to TFA, which is pouring into Chicago with hundreds of non-union replacement teachers. “The added influx of TFA corps in the city means they now compete head-to-head for jobs with traditional teachers,” noted journalist Emily Brosious.

“TFA basically now is a replacement worker organization,” Branden Rippey, a Newark, New Jersey-based public high school teacher and leader of his city’s New Education Workers caucus, told me. “They are a scab-running company; they lay off tenured teachers and bring in scab workers. The [TFA] kids are so young, they haven’t had experience, they haven’t had conflict with their bosses, they don’t understand what’s happening and don’t know what they’re being used for.”

Echoing criticism of TFA heard in cities across America, Rippen described the organization as the spearhead of a “colonial project” that is throwing schools and communities into chaos.

In some cases, TFA members work in gleaming charter schools that occupy space seized from traditional public schools still operating under the same roof. School reformers call the practice “co-location.” Dave Levin, a TFA alumnus and the Knowledge Is Power Program’s co-founder, highlighted the propaganda value of co-location with a revealing comparison.

“Sometimes the tensions of co-location — a door or a line down a hall separating the two sides — are like Israel and Palestine,” Levin told journalist Steven Brill. “But when you have visitors and see the two sides, you really don’t have to say much about what this is really about” (Steven Brill, Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools).

Public funding to promote Israel

In 2009, the first year of Reality Israel, Schusterman began investing heavily in the charter school movement, donating $2 million to TFA and later establishing a TFA institute in her hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma that aimed to transform the city into “the epicenter of the education reform movement.” The move complemented Tulsa Public School Superintendent Keith Ballard’s firing of around 300 public school teachers, who were mostly replaced with TFA corps members.

A year before Schusterman began supporting education privatization, Michael Steinhardt, the hedge fund manager who commits millions each year to Birthright Israel, and who has declared, “There were no Palestinian people,” initiated an effort to establish a network of Hebrew-language charter schools that promoted Israel on the public dime.

By 2010, Steinhardt’s 35-year-old daughter, Sarah Berman, was in charge of the Hebrew Charter School Center, a charter network that drew support from public financing and from wealthy ideologues like Schusterman, who has contributed at least $250,000 to schools operating in its sphere.

According to the principal of Brooklyn’s Hebrew Language Academy — the first charter in the center’s nationwide network — the school’s goal “is to foster a love for the country of Israel in all of its diversity.”

Reporters Nathan Guttman and Naomi Zeveloff of the Forward reported that the Israeli flag stands beside the American flag in classrooms of the Hebrew Language Academy (45 percent of the school’s students are non-white). Despite criticism from the New York Civil Rights Coalition, which accused the charters of skirting the constitutional separation of religion and state to “transmit cultural values and identity,” the publicly-funded network has expanded across the country.

One new school in the Hebrew Center’s network, the Kavod Elementary Charter School in San Diego, California, was founded by Jennie Starr, an official with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). In 2011, Starr highlighted the new academy as a kind of pro-Israel activism mill, writing, “A passionate, Israel-oriented, Hebrew speaking community will almost certainly support Israel and stay connected to Judaism.”

According to a 2011 segment on Public Radio International’s program The World, this is how children at the Hebrew Language Academy in Brooklyn begin each school day:

[Teacher is heard saying]

“Hands at your side like a soldier…”

[Students begin to sing.]

PRI reporter: It’s not just any song … it’s the Hatikvah, the Israeli national anthem.

As the billionaire-backed, bipartisan movement for education privatization sets its sights on inner cities across America, pro-Israel ideologues like Schusterman are riding the momentum. And it seems that little can stop them from imposing their agenda, not even the US constitution.

Max Blumenthal is an award-winning journalist and bestselling author. His next book, Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel, will be published by Nation Books in October.

Comments

Thanks for this interesting and well researched article. I haven't read the Brook's op-ed article you referenced but I found your reference to voodoo problematic. The way you put it you make it seem as if it would be a negative thing to be a practitioner of voodoo (which is not an accurate spelling anyway). Negative portrayals of voodoo can be directly and consistently tied to colonialism in the Caribbean and west Africa and the motion picture industry in the United States. Basically viewing voodoo as a negative and devilish practice is simply a legacy of racism.

While I agree with you on so many points, especially in terms of TFA and Israeli policy, I think your representation of the Reality-TFA trip is completely skewed. I'd love to speak with you more in depth about the matter. As a past participant of the trip I'd love to talk to you how we can refine the argument. There are some complete and utter fallacies about the trip...

I take great issue with your claim that REALITY exists, in part, to promote Israel. That is an absolute fallacy. Aside from the fact that my trip had one non-Jew on it (there goes your "agenda" theory...), we spent a great deal of our trip meeting with Arab-Israelis and hearing about their struggles. We took particular interest in an Arab-Israeli school that we visited because we saw an achievement gap not so different from the one that we are fighting to diminish in the United States. Moreover, upon my return to the States, one of my greatest takeaways from the trip was that there wasn't a "right" answer to the Israeli/Palistinian conflict and that it had so many more layers than many people (on either side) care to acknowledge.

Whether you agree with the mission of Teach for America or not, I can tell you with certainty that I know 50+ amazing young people from South Central Los Angeles who are preparing to head off to college (the first in their families to go to college, let alone to graduate high school) and that 100% would not have happened without the twelve highly dedicated TFA teachers that comprised the staff at the high school I taught at.

Having studied and practiced journalism, this piece is highly disappointing and skewed, at best.

And at schools like UCLA and UCSD these "50 amazing" students from South LA will experience the fallout of charters', billionaires' and TFA's hollowing-out of public education. they will be isolated, because most Black Californians are raised in schools where the classes required for good colleges aren't taught, and California law prohibits admissions from taking this into account. at many classes thrre will be a ring of empty seats around them. white liberals will taje pictures of them for brochures, parading them around as examples of what can happen when their community stops making excuses, but won't notice their individuality exceot in attempts to appear more like the dominant culture. then these liberals will join TFA and hollow out some more schools, sending a few tokens onward and upward as signs of their vision for a brighter future, doing nothing to educate them on the radical or liberatory projects that may actually help them on more than an individual basis.

obviously, these 50 children were doomed, just doomed to their all encompassing, ever-niggering, uneducated, uncultured, burdensome South Central blackness with 100% certainty if those teachers weren't fired and replaced with scabs. no alternatives are possible or even desirable, I.e. giving teachers and students the materials they need, implementing alternative disciplinary methods, empowering children to determine their own course, college for all who want it, communist revolution, etc. all of these alternatives are clearly as bizarre and ridiculous as they are uninspiring. we should spend billions on scabs instead. for the children.

how very magnanimous

You just know all about journalism and all about "layers," not to mention your extensive teacher training.

Not claiming to know everything about anything or anything about everything. I only know about the life experiences that I have been blessed to have thus far in life.

Looks like even here Hasbara must show its ugly, anti-union racist tentacles. Have they no shame.

Was thrilled to see this story posted on the BadASS teachers facebook page; however, my joy was short-lived as it no sooner appeared than it was quickly removed. Seems it's too "divisive." These comments appeared before it was deleted from the page. The banner on the facebook page describes this group of 24,000 plus teachers as "dynamic" and "militant."

Mark Naison 10:41pm Aug 22

I will post it on my personal page

Comment History Nancy Harb Almendras 10:41pm Aug 22

OK, well remove this Palestinian-American union leader, also.

Mark Naison 10:40pm Aug 22

Please remove
Mark Naison 10:40pm Aug 22
While I agree with this politically, I think it is divisive on this site

Nancy Harb Almendras 10:39pm Aug 22

It is discriminatory toward Palestinians and it has colonized Palestinian land.

Jennifer Fessler 10:35pm Aug 22

Calling Israel a discriminatory, colonial nation? Please! I thought this was against the "rules" of the site. I guess rules only apply to some.

Original Post Brian Hohmann 10:20pm Aug 22

Hey BATs, curious about the relationship between TFA and the state of Israel? To be honest, I was pretty surprised there even was one. Check out Max Blumenthal's investigative piece below as it reveals how TFA has embraced Israeli discrimination and a colonial mentality--some of which is funded with public money.6 minutes ago · Like..

@ Nayda

So what if one non-Jew was on your "Reality" Tour? You think zionist supporters are only concerned about propagandizing non-Jews? Your comment indicates you have a lack of information on Israeli hasbara. Zionist propaganda specifically targets young Jews, besides non-Jews.

So what if your "Reality" Tour took you to a few hand-picked Israeli Arabs. So apparently your reaction was, "Wow, the Israelis care so much about their minority groups....hey! just like we care about our minority groups back home in the US! The Israelis are no different from us! Now lets sing kumbaya..." Meanwhile your tour bus takes the more circuitous route to avoid showing you the Palestinian homes and orchards being demolished, the Jewish only roads along the apartheid wall, leading to settlements built on destroyed Palestinian villages, which are drawing water from the land to water lawns and fill swimming pools while surrounding Palestinian cities have their water supply cut off, out of which Palestinians must be delayed at checkpoint after checkpoint to visit the emergency room, after having been bombed and poison gassed and burned by Israeli white phosphorous..........You get the point.

Having been a teacher for Teach for America, and a journalist too, you'd think your critical thinking and analysis skills would've hipped you to the massive wool being pulled over your eyes.

All it takes to join "teach for awhile" bunch is a BA and a 2.5 GPA. Nothing but a corporate inspired enterprise contributing to the bashing of public school teachers and their unions. Teaching is a vocation, not something one does for a year or two until something more lucrative comes along.

Yeah, an acceptance rate below some of the best universities in the country and you say it's easy to get in. I guess you 2.5 will get you far in life.

It absolutely horrifying to see the collusion between TFA, the charter movement and AIPAC and Zionist forces. What can we do to stop this?

Because the public schools in the cities have done such a great job, it sucks that TFA is placing young, smart new blood in these schools trying to make things better....
You'd do best advocating for your core cause, instead of twisting facts and alienating people who might otherwise be sympathetic.

I am becoming overwhelmed by the power and penetration of American culture by the ultra right-wing,neoliberal, pro-Israel, pro-privatization, pro-WASP values, crowd, funded by a seemingly never-ending stream of right-wing billionaires willing to spend their billions on extending and defending their empires and extending their cultural values into every mind on the the planet. Naturally, because progressives live by a different set of values, we haven't a similar reserve of disgustingly rich Capitalist pigs to support & defend our values.