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Teaching Profession Opinion

More Vetoes of Teach For America Needed

By John Wilson — June 03, 2013 4 min read
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It took a smart and savvy Governor of Minnesota to figure out that Teach for America’s current funding strategy is not fiscally responsible for states. Governor Mark Dayton and his staff did their homework. When they learned that TFA had $350 million in assets, he questioned why precious funds from Minnesota should go into an already well-funded program. It is refreshing to know that there is at least one politician who is not blinded by the Madison Avenue branding of Teach for America.

I love the concept of young people doing public service in our public schools, but I continue to be appalled that these young people are the teachers of record for America’s most vulnerable children. While the original mission of Teach for America is well-intended, the TFA business plan is wrong for public schools---despite being touted by Wall Street.

I remain baffled as to why politicians have not figured out that TFA does not pay any teacher salaries or benefits. State and local school districts, including the poorest of them, must do that. Even more perplexing is that these politicians do not understand that TFA contracts require local districts to pay a finder’s fee for each TFA hire. Why do politicians not ask where TFA spends its resources? The answer is a matter of public record in the 990 form that the organization must file. Has anyone looked?

If policymakers did ask, they might learn that TFA has more than 1,600 employees. They might learn how much is spent on lobbyists, media gurus, strategic planners, and executive salaries and benefits. Sure, TFA spends funds on their five-week boot camps for recruits, but too many alumni have figured out from experience how unprepared they were for the students they faced. Policymakers might also learn that the federal government has already provided TFA with tens of millions of dollars from the federal budget. Where is the fiscal responsibility in this duplication of funding that these politicians usually decry? Where is the fairness to our neediest public schools?

In Nevada, some policymakers have questioned the proposed earmark of $2 million for TFA. The Nevada Senate has voted to fund the earmark despite the legitimate concerns raised, including the fact that only 95 TFA teachers are in classrooms in the state. While the Clark County School District gets TFA funds and officials call it a great recruiting tool, I hope elected officials in their State Assembly will be asking more questions about the use of state funds for TFA. If Nevada’s elected officials want to help Clark County, direct TFA instead to pay the salaries, benefits, and finder’s fee for these teacher recruits. Require five years of service for these teachers. Practice fiscal responsibility.

The worst example of Teach For America exploiting the teaching profession and colluding with political ideologues is occurring in North Carolina where legislators are anxious to destroy programs initiated under Democratic leadership. The North Carolina Senate has adopted a budget with an appropriation of $5 million for Teach For America. For this money, the expectations are a total of 275 teachers in North Carolina public schools, including, I presume, charter schools.

To put this action in North Carolina in perspective, you will need to understand that these same politicians have eliminated many of the programs in North Carolina that gave the state a national reputation for excellence in education. The NC Teacher Academy that provided tens of thousands of North Carolina teachers and administrators with high quality professional development is gone. The NC Teaching Fellows program that recruited and prepared thousands of outstanding high school scholars at selected colleges and universities has been killed---yet the majority of these Teaching Fellows, once they began teaching, actually stayed in the profession, unlike most TFA recruits. The NC Teacher Cadet program that offered high school students a credited course to inspire an interest in teaching is defunded. The NC Professional Teaching Standards Commission that produced the high standards on which Tar Heel teachers are evaluated is gone. In this same budget proposal, these politicians recommended the elimination of all funding for the NC Center for the Advancement of Teaching, a nationally acclaimed residential program of renewal and support for experienced teachers. The funds directed to Teach for America could have kept each of these programs in existence. These actions are not fiscally responsible.

Teach For America is not the solution to building a high-quality teaching profession in America. Investing in preparation, induction, and retention of great teachers is much more fiscally responsible. We have 3 million teachers in the United States, of whom Teach for America has provided no more than 13,000. I advise politicians in state legislatures to do the math for your states, ask for all the information and data, and listen to current teachers about what it takes to retain them. And, above all, be fiscally responsible.

The opinions expressed in John Wilson Unleashed are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.