Wendy Kopp should not be 2019 graduation speaker

Graduation ceremony with banner that reads "Class of 2019"
Susan Lin/Staff

Wendy Kopp, UC Berkeley’s spring 2019 commencement speaker, is the founder of Teach for America, or TFA, an organization whose mission is to “catalyze leadership to make educational equity a reality.” As one of the top public universities in the world, UC Berkeley has a responsibility to share its platform with individuals who support, uphold and demonstrate the values of public education, including equity, diversity, affordability and inclusion. TFA undermines the integrity of public education by contributing to a culture of disposability and educational racism, making it unacceptable for UC Berkeley to host Kopp as our graduation speaker.

TFA relies on the work of short-term and underpaid corps member student volunteers. While TFA claims to work to fill positions in “underserved” areas with teacher shortages, a recent report found that TFA corps members are actually taking away jobs from fully qualified teachers who have years of experience. In 2013, Chicago closed 48 schools and fired 850 teachers — while also hiring 350 new corps members.

TFA charges schools nonrefundable “finder’s fees” that typically range from $2,000 to $5,000 for each new corps member. Because TFA is a two-year commitment, those fees could cost already struggling school districts hundreds of thousands, even millions, of dollars each contract year.

Despite the finder’s fee, hiring TFA corps members may actually be cheaper in the long run, but at what social cost? In an effort to stay afloat amid neoliberal budget cuts that attack public education at all levels while exclusive private charter schools are on the rise, many public schools choose not to hire experienced teachers because they require more robust financial commitments such as insurance and resources, especially if they’re on the tenure track. The structure of TFA contributes to the inequitable educational system that it claims to combat, furthering the shift toward an educational gig economy.

TFA also contributes to educational racism. Many TFA participants are white college graduates who are tossed into classrooms they are unprepared to run and communities they know nothing about. TFA promises an “intensive summer training program” before service, but corps members only receive five to eight weeks of instruction and a location-specific orientation that runs for one to two weeks.

This is an absolutely inadequate amount of time given the level of responsibility each corps member carries, which is further compounded by the demographic difference among students and teachers. A 2014 study reports that “although 90% of the students served by TFA are African American, Latinx, or Native American, and live in high-poverty communities, 14% of recruits are African-American and 11% are Latinx.”

The same study concluded that “TFA effectively benefits the racial and economic interests of Whites” because many white corps members can choose to join TFA, choose to live on low wages and choose to leave at the end of their short stints with this experience on their resumes, while people living the realities of poverty and inequality aren’t afforded the same luxuries.

While I haven’t served in TFA, I did complete a year of service with AmeriCorps VISTA, which has strikingly similar practices. Fresh out of undergrad with a degree from a private university, I was hired for a job I was passionate about but had no experience in. I was eager to get my hands dirty in “the real world” and willing (and privileged enough) to be paid at poverty-level wages. I learned and grew so much within that year, but was it an equitable situation for the people I worked with? Similarly, when thinking about TFA, who do we think about — the prestigious corps members or the students?

The focus tends to be about the corps member and their experience working with an “underserved” population. It is not surprising that a new bill seeks to effectively ban TFA in California. Introduced by Assemblymember Cristina Garcia, D-Bell Gardens, AB 221 has undergone significant amendments so that it no longer includes TFA by name, but it states that California schools would not be allowed to hire teachers through third-party organizations for less than a five-year commitment.

If TFA truly wants to fulfill its mission, it needs to work to put itself out of business. It needs to be pushing for long-term structural change and not offering two-year quick fixes for systemic problems. Until then, TFA is creating a problem for which it is conveniently suited to serve as the “solution.”

At a time when public higher education is also under attack, UC Berkeley cannot give its platform to the founder of an organization that suggested to its corps members that they cross picket lines during the Oakland teachers strike. As one of the top public universities in the world, UC Berkeley must choose speakers who stand in solidarity with public education instead of working to both undermine and profit from it.

UC Berkeley students, their families and loved ones deserve better than Wendy Kopp.

Summer Sullivan is a master’s student in global studies at UC Berkeley.