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National teaching program recruits lobbyist for W.Va.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - With education reform on the lips of lawmakers heading into this year's legislative session, a national organization that often finds itself at odds with state teachers' unions has hired its first ever lobbyist in West Virginia.

Teach for America, a program that tries to put high-achieving college graduates in teaching positions in poor areas, has unsuccessfully advocated for access to state classrooms in the past. But one of the group's officials said the timing now is right for another push.  

"We are expecting a package from the governor that will be some wide-sweeping ed reforms, and we wanted to provide them with an option for alternative education certification to be part of that," Will Nash, TFA Appalachia executive director, said Friday in a phone interview.

About 15 percent of TFA's participants have teaching degrees, Nash said, while the rest have degrees in other areas of concentration. They must go through a training process and pass state certification standards before entering a classroom.

The program has faced resistance in West Virginia because of challenges surrounding the alternative certification pathways for those participants not from traditional education backgrounds, in Nash's opinion.

There are options, but some require a teaching degree already.

Hiring teachers with those certifications can be difficult for districts as well, Nash said. Sometimes an open teaching position needs to be posted several times in an area before that area can be considered in critical need, and thus eligible for a teacher with alternative certification.

"They require so many hurdles, they're really not options," Nash said, talking about the process already in place. "They're really nonstarters from the beginning."

TFA wants to make it easier to get that alternative certification, which would require a change to state code. It hired Frank Hartman to advocate for that change. With roughly five years of experience lobbying locally and having participated in TFA, Hartman was uniquely qualified for the spot, Nash said.

After graduating college in the early 1990s, Hartman went to Baldwin, La., to be a fourth-grade teacher through the program. He stayed the required two years, and said he enjoyed the experience.

Hartman said recent discussions on education reform lend themselves nicely to a climate favorable to TFA.  

Nash cited a recent audit of the state's public education system as proof tides could be turning. Released last January, the audit recommended more than 100 changes that could save the state money and make the system more effective.

Among those changes: making alternative certifications easier to obtain.

Leaders from the state's largest teachers' unions are skeptical those changes will lead to student achievement.

"I personally don't believe in Teach for America. But I think you have to be closed-minded to say that we're not going to discuss anything," said Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association.

"We're willing to have the discussions, but I don't know how they're going to show me that Teach for America increases student achievement."

Current alternative certification processes are adequate and a reasonable way for people to earn the credits needed to enter a classroom, Lee said. He acknowledged that teachers can use such certifications to move into different areas of concentration, but questioned how "lowering standards" would help students perform better.

He is concerned that someone with an alternative certification is less equipped to manage a classroom.

Any first-year teacher can have problems - Hartman said he and his fellow non-TFA teachers were equally overwhelmed - but Lee thinks those with traditional training are better suited to cope with the challenges of a classroom.

Both of the state's teachers' unions agree West Virginia is suffering from a shortage of qualified teachers. However, Lee said raising current teacher salaries, not opening the door to TFA, is the best way to get quality people in classrooms.

The people in the program aren't looking to stick around very long either, said Judy Hale, president of the state chapter of the American Federation of Teachers.

"They don't stay very long. Most of them are building a resume," Hale said Friday in a phone interview. "They're there for a year or two and then they move on."

The program calls for a two-year commitment. Nash acknowledged Hale's concern, but said TFA members are more likely than traditional teachers to return for a second year.

Nash referenced a TFA report in support of his point. The report, citing internal data and a 2003 report from the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future, states 92 percent of TFA members return for their second year, compared to 83 percent of teachers in low-income communities and 86 percent of all new teachers.

Even if a TFA member continues to fill a teaching spot, Hale said she doesn't think that person would be any more qualified than a long-term substitute teacher. That person has a traditional background in teaching, she said.

Teachers unions have opposed previous attempts to allow TFA into the state. Traditionally, that opposition has played a large role with the Democratic delegates who control the House education committee.

While Democrats still control the committee, recent gains by the House GOP have led some to believe some union-opposed measures stand a better chance of making it to the House floor.

Neither Lee nor Hale said they were surprised TFA hired a lobbyist this year.

"To me it will be like the charter school movement a couple years ago. They had lobbyists come for charter schools," Lee said.

"There are just some things that don't fit in West Virginia," he added.

Hale said any significant changes to alternative certification programs would be a tough sell, too.

It all hinges on what Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin proposes, she said.

"Everybody's kind of waiting for the governor, I think, to see what's going to be in his package," Hale said. "At this point I don't know. I don't know what the governor's position is on this."

A spokeswoman for the governor did not return a call for comment.

Tomblin has repeatedly said education will be a focus for his office during the upcoming legislative session, which reconvenes Feb. 13

Contact writer Dave Boucher at 304-348-4843 or david.boucher@dailymail.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/Dave_Boucher1.


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