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When Kevin Huffman joined Teach for America (TFA) in September 2000 as vice president of development and general counsel, there was no real federal operation in place at TFA, nor anyone within the organization who really knew how Washington, DC, worked—including Huffman.
“I had absolutely no idea what I was doing for the first six months,” he said.
The 1992 Swarthmore College graduate had started out teaching first and second grade in Houston with TFA and then gone to New York University for law school. He had represented a few education clients during his two-year stint at the DC law firm Hogan & Hartson, but little of that work had involved building relationships with congressional leaders and White House officials. In his new job, he was going to have to do a lot of just that.
Huffman joined TFA at the end of the second Clinton administration, when George W. Bush and Al Gore were slogging it out on the campaign trail. Teach for America was no longer a new or unknown endeavor. In fact, it had received a ton of accolades—along with a fair amount of criticism—and had emerged from its early financial struggles determined to stay focused and expand operations. Celebrities clamored to participate in Teach for America Week. High-level admirers included AOL-Time Warner’s Jerry Levin, Intel’s Craig Barrett, and Eli Broad. Once forced to ask strangers for money, TFA head Wendy Kopp noted in her 2003 book about the organization’s development, TFA now found friends and alumni on the other side of the table.
Now, after years placing 500–800 corps members in roughly fifteen regions, the decade-old TFA was aiming to ramp things up to forty sites over the next five years. Part of that expansion relied on continued cooperation from local school districts and administrators, options for alternative certification at the state level, favorable legislation, and increased funding from Washington.
For the first few months in particular, the affable Huffman did not have much of a plan. “I thought to myself, ‘Gosh we should probably get to know some of the folks on the Hill a little bit better,’” he said. “I literally went to the Hill and met with random members and random staff people.”
The inner workings of DC political life are notoriously obscure for even the sharpest minds. Everyone looks too young for the suits and dresses they are wearing and too stressed for anyone on the short side of forty. The official events taking place in public or on camera—hearings, floor debate, votes, and even markups—are often the least important interactions among members. The widespread use of acronyms, the arcane procedures, and the rapid-fire delivery of information (or false friendliness) can make it difficult to figure out exactly what people are really agreeing to do.
“It took a long time to realize saying they ‘liked what we were doing’ didn’t mean that they were going to help me get money,” said Huffman. “I didn’t realize that people saying they liked you didn’t mean that they were actually going to help you.”
TFA would not hire a full-time government relations person for another year, and would not have anything approaching a mastery of Washington’s inner workings for another three. “We were basically in survival mode that whole time,” said Huffman.
1. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations are taken from telephone interviews or e-mail conversations with the author.
2. Wendy Kopp, One Day, All Children: The Unlikely Triumph of Teach for America and What I Learned along the Way (New York: Public Affairs, 2003).
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