Against Koppitalism

A shortened version of this article first appeared on North by Northwesternas part of a series of reactions to a talk by Wendy Kopp.

Wendy Kopp began her lecture yesterday by recounting how she got to the idea for starting Teach For America. She grew up, as did many Northwestern students, in a sheltered upper-class community. The area where she went to high school in the suburbs of Dallas was appropriately nicknamed “the bubble.” Later, as a public policy major at Princeton, she learned more about America’s inequalities, and it especially shocked her to learn that a student’s place of birth is the biggest factor for determining their educational success—insofar as geography is very tied to socio-economic background in this highly segregated country.

One might be forgiven for being a little confused about this account. Kopp learned that there are a lot of poor people in the richest country in the world, and she learned that these poor people don’t do very in school. Shouldn’t the first of these be the shocking fact, and the second an obvious conclusion? But of course, Kopp grew up in a time of neoliberal orthodoxy even more constraining than ours. To question poverty itself was nearly unthinkable, but to forbid poor kids from having their own little piece of the American dream was a crime against humanity. Public education, for as long as it has existed, has played this role in the collective imagination of the United States: The “great equalizer,” granting the same opportunities to every kid no matter their background (except for black kids, but that’s a story for another day). Capitalism never promised to abolish poverty, but it did promise to allow the poor to move up in life, and in Kopp’s eyes it was now failing by its own standards.

And so Wendy Kopp made it her mission to bring equity to the American education system—a noble goal, undeniably. But now again, one might think, if poverty is what seems to be causing poor educational outcomes and fixing poverty is out of the question, maybe we can at least try to attenuate its effects. Provide better free meals in high poverty districts, free tutoring services to replace parents who don’t have time to help with homework, that kind of thing. But to a self-identified “corporate tool” and staff member of the “Princeton Tory” like Kopp, such programs probably amounted to communism. Instead, if there was to be a solution, it could not come from such “patches” to capitalism, but from capitalism itself. Ask rich donors for money, get recent grads from elite universities to make some temporary sacrifices before they move on to their successful careers in other fields. And thus was TFA born.

This kind of liberal voluntarism meshes perfectly well with conservative narratives about social problems: Rich people will fix it, so long as neither the government nor unions get in the way. It should come as no surprise that it was so easy for her to get funding, first from Mobil Corp. and Union Carbide Corp., later from Ross Perot, and nowadays from all kinds of rich philanthropists, as well as public funds. Organizations like Kopp’s play an important justificatory role in capitalist ideology, so whether she intended to or not, she was actually doing them a favor! I’m not trying to say here that people only volunteer their time and money to TFA because it justifies a system that keeps them at the top, but only that given the ideology that tends to pervade the upper classes, TFA is exactly the kind of thing that these type of people will see as a worthy investment. Note that in her talk, when replying to my previous article which argued for structural change instead of TFA’s brand of “leadership,” Kopp could only say: “I can’t be more specific. We need leadership, that is all.” Facts be damned, so long as what we do fits my own narrative about how the world works. And in this narrative, all solutions come straight from the top, from the saintly elite “leaders” who contribute to TFA.

Kopp says she recognizes that TFA-type solutions can only go so far. In the end, there are structural problems to solve that can’t be solved by more and more voluntarism. For example, she admitted in her talk that we’ll need to pay teachers more if we want to improve the education system in the long run. But actions speak louder than words. TFA alumni like Michelle Rhee, whose union-busting tactics as chancellor of DC public schools do everything but make the teaching profession easier, get invited to speak at TFA alumni summits; while TFA alumni like Alex Caputo-Pearl, a teacher in LA who plays a leading role in activism against privatization and for better working conditions, tend to get the cold shoulder. As for poverty? According to Kopp, the way we’ll inoculate kids against it is by teaching them “character strength” alongside their academic skills. “Kids who succeed in the face of challenges are the ones with the strongest character,” she said at her talk. So if you’re poor, grin and bear it. Maybe if you’re lucky TFA will send one of their “leaders” to help you out.