Rob Bryan might not have needed the help. As the chairman of the Mecklenburg County Republican Party, he was well-positioned to run against, and defeat, a Democratic incumbent for a seat in the State Legislature in 2012.
But what turned out to be one of the more astute political decisions in his life happened more than 20 years ago, when he was a student at UNC-Chapel Hill and his roommate brought in a brochure for an organization he’d never heard of before.
“Teach for America was a little bit of the new Peace Corps,” Bryan remembers. “Go have an opportunity to break out of the typical world you’ve lived in most of your life.”
So Bryan became a TFA teacher at an inner-city Los Angeles elementary school. He worked hard to help his kids learn to read, and played soccer with them every day at recess.
On his campaign website years later, he’d refer to his experience by saying it was where he learned about “non-innovative, bureaucratic school districts that were unwilling to change.”
That kind of rhetoric played well with conservative voters, and Bryan won easily in 2012, adding to the Republicans’ majority in the General Assembly.
But Bryan had more help from Teach For America than just a place to hang his hat for two years after college. During his campaign, Teach For America helped Bryan get elected - through a partner group called the Leadership For Educational Equity – or LEE. As a 501c4 organization, LEE can be more directly political than Teach For America.
“It’s an organization focused on leadership development in the areas of policy, advocacy, organizing, and in some cases elected office as well,” says Michael Amodeo, a spokesman for LEE.
If that sounds a little vague, Bryan is more specific about the assistance he got from LEE.
“I was in contact with them during my race,” he says. “I had some folks donate to me. They helped support my get-out-the-vote effort and sort of contacts. So they were definitely helpful in my race.”
Those national Teach For America donors who gave to Bryan included Arthur Rock, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist, and Emma Bloomberg, daughter of the billionaire mayor of New York City. Bloomberg is also a board member of LEE.
Many of those affiliated with Teach For America and LEE are identified with democratic or liberal efforts. Amodeo, the organization’s spokesman, worked for the Obama Re-election Campaign.
Rob Bryan is a self-described conservative Republican. In addition to his interest in education reform, he’s also on the board of directors of The Pregnancy Resource Center of Charlotte. That organization describes itself as a resource for low-income women and teens; opponents say it provides misinformation to and undo pressure on pregnant girls who come in seeking a simple pregnancy test.
LEE says it has no political litmus test to earn its support. The only criterion is to be a Teach For America alum, like Bryan.
Bi-partisanship is something that has been missing on education reform issues in North Carolina of late.
As a member of the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on education, Bryan has supported controversial reforms that many people affiliated with Teach For America also support, like charter school expansion.
One of the recent decisions by the Legislature more directly affected Teach For America. In the budget passed earlier this year, the General Assembly ended the Teaching Fellows program and replaced it with several programs run by Teach For America. The no-bid state contract is worth about $12 million for TFA.
It’s likely that the LEE-Teach For America influence will continue to grow in North Carolina.
“If our members in North Carolina and across the country find value in the work we are providing I can imagine we will do our best to ramp up our efforts to support that, but for the time being, we’re very happy with the role that we are playing in North Carolina,” says Amodeo.
For now, Representative Rob Bryan is LEE’s most successful electoral effort in North Carolina. It’s a long way from Teach For America’s days as the Peace-Corps like group he thought it was, all those years ago in his dorm room.
These reports are part of American Graduate-Let’s Make it Happen!- a public media initiative to address the drop out crisis, supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.