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Obama pal Bill Ayers calls Teach for America 'a fraud'

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Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago teachers union, and former Weather Underground member William Ayers have harsh words for Teach for America. (AP)

Weather Underground terrorist-turned-academic and Obama confidant William Ayers is taking up a cause near and dear to teachers unions: bashing a program that sends young, idealistic college grads into the inner city to teach poor kids.

The nonprofit Teach for America is a "fraud" whose participants are nothing but “educational tourists,” said Ayers, a onetime associate of President Obama who was a professor in the College of Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago before retiring. The 68-year-old firebrand, now a self-styled educational theorist, said the program's young grads are merely passing through the gritty neighborhoods where they serve to pad their resumes at the expense of longer-term educators represented by unions.

“It’s a fraud on every level because it’s not going to change teaching, it’s going to undermine teaching,” Ayers said at a recent educational summit. He added that the young teachers "are the nicest kids in the world," but said the program itself is misguided.

Teachers unions have long criticized Teach for America, which they believe provides cash-strapped districts with a crop of short-timers who earn entry-level pay and don't rack up the health and retirement costs of regular teachers. Ayers, who at the same age as most Teach for America participants helped carry out bombings of the Pentagon and New York Police Department headquarters, said the education program's idealistic teachers are doing more harm than good.

The nonprofit Teach For America annually recruits thousands of top college graduates to teach for two years at public schools in low-income areas across the country. Its stated mission is to "eliminate educational inequity by enlisting high-achieving recent college graduates and professionals" to teach in low-income neighborhoods. Participants' benefits and salaries, which range from $25,500 to $51,000, depending on where they serve, are paid by the local districts and match the compensation of regular hires.

Ayers, whose comments were echoed by Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, said the young teachers themselves aren't to blame, but indicated they are never truly vested in the schools in which they serve. Lewis went even further, saying TFA’s policies “kill and disenfranchise children from schools across this nation.”

“It’s a fraud on every level because it’s not going to change teaching, it’s going to undermine teaching.”

- William Ayers, blasting Teach for America

Teach for America officials declined to comment on Ayers' assertions. But Michelle Rhee, the former schools chancellor in Washington, D.C., and a Teach for America alum, defended the program, which was founded in 1989.

Click on EAGnews.org for video of Bill Ayers attacking Teach for America

“Teach for America already has changed teaching and for the better. The data is clear in terms of teacher-student impact and the caliber of candidates the program attracts," Rhee told FoxNews.com. "Attacks on TFA are attacks on teachers, since it is a teaching corps. We support all teachers who have high expectations for their students and meet high standards of performance and accountability in the classroom."

For years, critics -- mainly teachers' union officials -- have said the program allows cash-strapped districts to replace experienced, full-time teachers with lower paid and often more transient instructors. According to Teach for America, just above 7,000 of the 24,000 teachers it has deployed since its inception were still teaching as of 2011, though program officials say nearly two-thirds make education their full-time career. 

One superintendent in southeast Arkansas told FoxNews.com her school district could barely open its doors if it weren’t for Teach for America.

“We have a shortage of teachers, and you never know where you’re going to find one, or if you’re going to find one,” said Joyce Vaught, the superintendent of the Lakeside School District in the rural community of Lake Village.

Vaught said all but one of the school's math teachers and the entire English department came to the district from TFA, and said many stay on well after the two-year hitch. Perhaps more importantly, Vaught said her only other option is often luring older teachers out of retirement.

“The principals tell me they’d rather have a Teach for America teacher for two years with no experience than to have a teacher who’s taught 30 years and retired and is tired," she said. "There’s just no comparison between what they bring to the children.”

The attacks on Teach for America aren’t really about children or education, according to Robert Enlow, president and CEO of The Friedman Foundation For Educational Choice. He said Ayers, Lewis and other critics of Teach for America see the program as a threat to teachers unions.

“The fact is the union wants to have people collectively speak, and what’s happening is TFA teachers are getting into the ranks and influencing the thoughts on collective bargaining, which is where the union’s had its power for so long,” Enlow said.

“The reason he’s doing this is because when you’re doing such a good job, like TFA is doing, you have to start to discredit the opponents, and what Ayers is great at is being a discreditor,” Enlow said.

Ayers' past ties to President Obama surfaced when Obama first ran for the White House in 2008. The two worked together on a charitable board starting in the mid-1990s, and Ayers once hosted a campaign event for Obama when he first ran for the Illinois Senate. Obama later distanced himself from Ayers, who wrote in late 2008 that the two were not close.

Garrett Tenney is a correspondent for Fox News Channel (FNC). He joined FNC in April 2013 and is based in the Chicago bureau.

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