Before becoming a media celebrity backed by banks and large corporations, activist DeRay Mckesson was a ruthless school administrator and close ally of Teach for America, boosting the education privatization movement and its attacks on teachers’ unions.
By Drew Franklin
First published in AlterNet’s Grayzone Project on February 20, 2016
(Editor’s note: In response to a massive uprising in May 2020 against racism, police brutality, and US state violence, Wells Fargo bank-backed activist DeRay Mckesson launched “8 Can’t Wait.” This campaign is being heavily criticized by grassroots activists, who have called it the status quo’s milquetoast response to protesters’ demands to defund US police departments and a corporate-sponsored attempt to “derail the movement.” The Grayzone is thus republishing this 2016 report by Drew Franklin, investigating Mckesson’s origins in the corporate education privatization movement.)
For those who’ve never paid much attention, Teach For America sounds like a benevolent and benign idea: recruit bright college grads, give them some teacher-training and place them in some of the nation’s neediest schools for a two-year commitment to teach kids.
The reality behind Teach For America’s sunny exterior is somewhat more sinister. Education policy experts today consider the nonprofit founded by Wendy Kopp in 1990 to be at the vanguard of the school privatization movement.
Teach For America (TFA) is also a media juggernaut in its own right, known for deploying a sophisticated public relations arsenal to advance an agenda focused on crushing teachers’ unions and privatizing public school systems.
TFA’s funders, including the Waltons, Bill and Melinda Gates, and top Fortune 500 corporations, all have plenty to gain from the commodification of public goods and the destruction of public service unions, and its 11,000 corps members provide a valuable service to that end.
TFA’s peculiar brand of social justice was on bold display at its 25th anniversary summit, the weekend of February 5. The confab drew 15,000 corps members, alumni, and supporters to Washington for three days of seminars on lofty issues like “Allies, Co-Conspirators and Coalition Building: Showing Up for Justice Across Lines of Power.” But one of the biggest draws was the discussion on “The New Civil Rights Agenda and Education,” co-headlined by DeRay Mckesson, the TFA alum and 30-year-old Black Lives Matter activist who received a $10,000 award from TFA last year.
When Mckesson announced his campaign for mayor of Baltimore this month, his name topped the list of trending topics on Twitter for several hours. Even without outlining a strategy to defeat better-known, more entrenched candidates, Mckesson received nearly $130,000 in online donations, met with President Barack Obama (who said Mckesson and associates “were better organizers than I was”), and secured his status as one of the country’s most closely watched political outsiders.
Headlines appeared across national media, from Slate to the Guardian to the Washington Post, with the progressive online magazine Truthdig proclaiming Mckesson “Truthdigger of the Week.”
With his candidacy for a city whose public schools are a key target of the education reform movement, the time seems right to scrutinize Mckesson’s relationship with Teach for America more closely. His high-profile appearance at the TFA gala only days after filing his last-minute bid to enter the race was only the latest collaboration with the organization spearheading a sustained attack on teacher’s unions and traditional public schools.
Promotion from TFA, shade from local organizers
DeRay Mckesson is a prolific Twitter personality who first came to national prominence during the uprising of 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. His live-tweeting of protests in the wake of Michael Brown’s death quickly garnered a massive following, and as a wave of protests swept the United States, Mckesson was consistently among the first on the scene, making him and his Twitter feed an invaluable source of information for journalists.
With his rapid emergence, Mckesson developed a well-tailored image as a media darling, known in equal measure for his ubiquitous blue Patagonia vest and composed attitude, holding his own in interviews with the most confrontational cable news hosts.
The name “DeRay” became synonymous with the Black Lives Matter protest movement, boosted by features in mainstream news magazines and promotion from international celebrities like Beyonce. His influence emanates from Twitter, where he maintains over 300,000 followers, mixing live updates from demonstrations against police brutality with commercial-style promotions of corporations like McDonald’s and Spotify.
As Mckesson rose to prominence, Teach For America was there to provide promotion through its powerful PR apparatus.
Mckesson had no connection to Ferguson when he first arrived on August 16, 2014, according to an interview he gave Huffington Post later the same year. But it didn’t take him long to connect with another protester named Brittany Packnett, with whom he began working the same day. The fact that Packnett is executive director of TFA’s St. Louis chapter likely contributed to their immediate rapport.
At the time, Mckesson was senior director of human capital for Minneapolis Public Schools. He says he commuted to Ferguson on weekends before eventually quitting his job to protest full-time.
A Twitter search query produces a clear timeline of Mckesson’s subsequent transition from human resources manager to social justice talent, aided by promotion from Teach For America. It begins with a post to TFA’s official blog, in which Mckesson pontificates on his activities in Ferguson. TFA tweeted a link to that post on Aug. 21, 2014, at which point Mckesson would have been in the besieged midwestern town for five days.
The next item on the timeline, dated October 29, is an advertisement for a “national conference call featuring TFA alumni @MsPackyetti [Packnett] and @deray.” Two weeks after that, the Washington Post published a profile of McKesson and TFA promoted it on social media, identifying him again as a “TFA alumnus.” On Dec. 10, Time Magazine named him along with a handful of peers, collectively referred to as the “Ferguson protesters,” as runners-up to its 2014 Person of the Year, and TFA promoted that too.
Mckesson’s big break, however, was a cover story for the May 4 issue of the New York Times Magazine, with the headline “Our Demand Is Simple: Stop Killing Us.” The 6700-word article profiles McKesson and fellow overnight celebrity Ferguson protester Johnetta Elzie, as they drop in to demonstrations in cities across the United States over the course of nine months.
— deray (@deray) October 6, 2014
After being informed that the Times offered no such answer, Mckesson stated, “You know, people ask me this, and I haven’t even had to answer this. I, you know, me and you don’t have a relationship. You know, you’re a reporter to me, you know—I’ve answered it many times. I will put that on my list of things and try to double back with you.” Several hours later, Mckesson texted me the link to a tweet from last spring claiming that his excursions were funded by unnamed “family and friends.”
According to the Times profile, back in mid-September 2014, he and Packnett began publishing a newsletter for the Ferguson protests called “This Is the Movement,” which boasted “a wide range of readers, from reporters to protesters to officials within the Department of Justice.” The newsletter was mostly composed of consisted of links to articles from various external publications, a few charities and several T-shirt vendors.
The article briefly touches on Mckesson’s career prior to Ferguson, describing him as having developed a reputation as a “ruthless administrator,” for whom firing teachers was always in the best interests of children.
This echoes Teach For America’s union-busting culture, perhaps best exemplified by its most infamous alumna, former D.C. public schools chancellor Michelle Rhee. Among the brazen stunts that marked her takeover of DCPS was her on-camera firing of a tenured public school principal—a humiliation later compounded by the fact that the event was staged for film, to be replayed during a nationally televised broadcast as well as in the documentary feature film Waiting For Superman.
Mckesson the ruthless administrator is a difficult characterization to reconcile with Mckesson the protester, as he is typically portrayed in print, nor does it come through in his television appearances. But commentary from some activists who have encountered him on the ground in Ferguson and Baltimore suggests that the public image he’s cultivated is a media fiction.
Baltimore activist Duane Davis, in a tweet addressed to DeRay, says, “[W]e crossed paths. On more than one occasion….you never engaged in conversation. [Y]ou were more focused on media attention.”
In a February 15 interview with Jared Ball on the Real News Network, Hands Up United Coalition co-founder Taureen Russell offered a withering assessment of Mckesson’s alleged role as a protest organizer. “I never worked with DeRay. I’m really hard-pressed to find any local people who have worked with DeRay. All the local people that I know worked with DeRay…work with the establishment,” he said. “So when I hear him go on Colbert and Colbert is saying he’s organized protests in Ferguson…I don’t know an action or a protest that he was a part of.”
Russell is a founder of the organization that initiated the protests in Ferguson against the police killing of Michael Brown and the acquittal of the officer who gunned him down. He told Ball he was relieved that Mckesson had moved on to politics because “it makes my job [as a grassroots organizer] a little easier.”
Addressing Baltimore, Russell said of Mckesson: “He’s a proponent for charter schools. He’s not typically a fan of public schools. So the educational issue comes up. His policy, to be honest, most people see as a neoliberal kind of policy. And we know his policy comes from Teach For America.”
Mckesson’s political platform, which he has begun rolling out on the DeRay For Mayor website, seems modeled in part on those who have forced corporate education reforms under big-city mayors like Rahm Emanuel and Michael Bloomberg. Both of those mayors have justified unilateral takeovers of the public school districts in their respective cities using teacher evaluations based on standardized test scores, which have consistently been debunked as unreliable measures of academic performance.
The language in his section on education is typical of school privatization advocates, according to Dr. Julian Vasquez Heilig, a professor of education at California State University at Sacremento who has written extensively about Teach For America on his website, Cloaking Inequity.
“Most of it is pretty consistent with what TFA says on a daily basis,” he told me.
I could not get confirmation from Mckesson about whether his candidacy was supported by Teach For America.
Several sources told me they received emails from Mckesson’s mayoral campaign after they signed up to receive updates from Campaign Zero, a criminal justice reform organization focused on limiting abusive policing and banning quotas on tickets and arrests that he helped launch.
When I reached him by phone on February 14, Mckesson refused to discuss subjects like campaign personnel or outside donors. Asked if he was harvesting emails gathered by Campaign Zero to promote his mayoral campaign, McKesson simply said, “No comment.”
He wouldn’t disclose any details about his campaign’s voter database management, and declined to offer details about a private policy meeting in January that was covered by the Washington Post. Among about a dozen attendees of the meeting were members of Campaign Zero’s planning team and Donnie O’Callaghan, a former TFA corps member and project manager for a TFA offshoot called the New Teacher Project. The New Teacher Project was founded by Michelle Rhee to supplement TFA’s efforts to supply new teachers to school districts.
Also in the room with Mckesson was Packnett, the former TFA administrator, and Elzie, who joined the two of them at TFA’s 25th anniversary. Together, they are three parts of Campaign Zero’s four-person planning team, raising further questions about the organization’s ties to TFA and its role in Mckesson’s campaign for mayor.
“The second half of the movement”
Teach For America’s official function is to recruit recent college graduates for temporary teaching jobs in impoverished school districts, and its methods in that endeavor have been a source of increasing rancor. But its other, lesser-known and more peculiar mission is to train its corps members to become political operatives in order to directly influence public education policy.
A 2007 story in the New York Times Magazine described TFA’s efforts, which its leadership calls “the second half of the movement,” to move beyond the classroom by preparing alumni for careers in public office. A shell company called Leadership for Educational Equity (LEE) provides training and funding to aspiring politicians and candidates affiliated with TFA. Mckesson refused to answer when I asked him whether LEE had contributed to his campaign.
Today, all levels of government are honeycombed with TFA alumni, from local to state to the federal level. Two of the D.C. State Board of Education’s nine members are former corps members backed by LEE, and Washington Post columnist Valerie Strauss recently quoted President Obama saying, “There are even TFA alumni working for me in the White House.”
Some have already demonstrated substantial power over education policy. In 2011, when TFA alumnus John White was superintendent of the New Orleans Recovery School District, he closed every single public school and turned the RSD into the first all-charter school system in the country. White has since been promoted to superintendent of schools for the State of Louisiana by right-wing Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal.
TFA’s Machiavellian agenda belies its feel-good rhetoric and carefully cultivated image as the front line of a “new civil rights movement” — a message Mckesson channels through his tweets, as well as in interviews.
When I asked him if he’d ever had political aspirations before deciding to run for mayor, Mckesson said, “Being familiar with two different public school districts made it clear to me that so much of the work around justice, equity, and making communities thrive—or the conditions that allow communities to thrive—is systemic and structural. So I try to be in places where I can push systems and structures to be better, such as in protest.”
Mckesson’s candidacy in Baltimore arrived at a fortuitous time for the education reform movement. The city is already in the process of closing a dozen public schools, and as Slate’s Rachel M. Cohen noted, the future mayor gets to decide what to do with the buildings.
What’s more, the city’s existing charter schools maintain a unionized teaching force and operate under substantial oversight from the city’s school district. That’s unusual for charters, and implies unfinished business in Baltimore for TFA’s network of education reformers.
In the platform provided on his campaign website, Mckesson pledged to “assess the feasibility of repurposing closed schools and recreation centers to ensure opportunities are available in all neighborhoods.”
I asked Vasquez Heilig what the implications of Mckesson’s proposal might be for Baltimore.
“Repurposing for what?” he said. “I suspect what he’s after is what the Teach For America network has been after in Chicago, Detroit, and New Orleans. For example, in Chicago they’ve sold empty school buildings to charter schools for a dollar. These are buildings that the public has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on, so this repurposing has been at the benefit of charter schools.”
When I asked Mckesson if he would close any schools as mayor of Baltimore, he scoffed, emphasizing that the mayor doesn’t control the school system. But would he allow school closures? Would he do anything to prevent them? “That’s like asking me if I’m gonna change the bus schedule,” he declared. “The mayor doesn’t manage the bus schedule.”
In my conversation with Vasquez Heilig, he offered clues as to how the Baltimore mayor’s lack of control over schools might factor into a TFA-backed agenda. “Teach For America alums have pressed for mayoral control in Chicago and other places,” Vasquez Heilig told me. “Their modus operandi has been to control school systems in a top-down fashion. They don’t support community-based approaches to education reform.”
This unfinished business is potentially very lucrative, especially for tech companies. Mckesson’s platform includes proposals to create “an online hub of academic enrichment” programs and to “collaborat[e] with local technology entrepreneurs and innovators to launch computer and coding opportunities” in schools.
Vasquez Heilig called TFA a “hub of education reform” that maintains alliances with charter schools and business interests in Silicon Valley. He said the network helps funnel millions of dollars in state and federal funds into contracts with private firms.
While there’s nothing wrong with introducing cutting edge technology in schools, according to Vasquez Heilig, the way it’s implemented is critical. “I don’t think anyone disagrees with integrating technology,” he says, “but replacing good instruction and expert teachers with technology has no support in the research literature.”
The market incentives facilitated by contracts with Silicon Valley are responsible for this trend, according to Vasquez Heilig. He cites testing based on the Common Core standard, which has proliferated with education reform, as a prime example:
“You can’t actually run the Common Core tests without the proper technology. Because of these tests, all these technology and software companies are making a lot of money, because districts have to invest in the technology to run the testing and have enough of it so they can test every kid. So not only do the testing companies make money hand-over-fist from the standards, the technology companies do, too.”
Even if local tech entrepreneurs lead the development of high-tech curricula in Baltimore, their execution will likely depend on expensive deals with Silicon Valley firms. In that regard, Mckesson has still more in common with his friends in TFA; Buzzfeed reports he has “strong relationships” with executives at companies like Medium and Twitter. Cultivating relationships with tech giants has become a “major tactic” of Campaign Zero, Buzzfeed says, adding that its activists are working with Twitter to host a presidential forum on racial justice.
The lack of transparency in the DeRay For Mayor campaign means the public will have to wait until March to identify all the contributors to its six-figure finances. But if history is any indicator, we can expect it to include many of the same financial interests that have waged assaults on public school teachers and students across the country. It remains to be seen if Teach For America and one of its most famous cadres will finally be held to account for their privatization agenda, before it begins to take hold in Baltimore.