National teaching corps remains hurdle in Tomblin's education reform
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Much of the vitriol surrounding Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's education reform bill concerns Teach For America, a national nonprofit that recruits college graduates to teach in high-need areas.
Teachers unions decry the program, saying it puts unqualified adults who lack any real teaching knowledge in the classroom. Advocates - the governor among them - say the program could help improve dismal student achievement scores.
While the fate of the program as far as the bill goes is still uncertain, misconceptions surrounding the nonprofit are driving a large part of the debate, said Will Nash, executive director for Teach for America Appalachia.
"I think it's something new. People fear the unknown," Nash said. "No one in West Virginia has ever worked alongside Teach For America corps members, principals have never hired them. People can only believe the worst-case scenarios that are being put out there."
One concept he finds particularly frustrating involves training.
Many of the attacks against the program, most notably from West Virginia Education Association President Dale Lee, include language about five weeks of training.
"Our teachers do not only get five weeks of training," Nash said, chuckling and shaking his head Thursday afternoon as he sat outside the offices of the Senate Education Committee.
Members do teach summer school for five weeks, but it's one part of a training regiment that
continues through a participant's two-year commitment, Nash said.
The governor's bill would allow program members to enter the state and work in critical-need areas. The members would have alternative teaching certificates, a certification also created in the bill. They would have to complete training and meet program requirements.
Opponents say there are already paths through which Teach for America could enter West Virginia. There are seven different alternative certification routes in law, but many require a traditional teaching background or are restrictively specific, Nash said. For example, one path would only allow someone who majored in math to teach math, not someone who majored in economics or accounting, Nash said.
"We think that if you can pass the praxis in the content area that you're going to be teaching, that should be sufficient enough to show that you have the content background," Nash said.
About 15 percent of corps members have college degrees in education. Nash acknowledges the program could send those teachers into the state right now, but it would not have the short-term impact of 100 percent participation.
Not every person who joins comes straight out of college. Professionals account for about 30 percent of the incoming class, the largest area of growth for recruits, Nash said.
"It's folks who have to have been successful in their field for us to even consider them," Nash said.
None of the 4,500 people accepted so far this year majored in interior design or fashion, Nash added. Lee specifically mentioned those two areas of study in recent attacks of the program.
In Lee's opinion, it's demeaning to think a banker could teach students math after training for a short period of time.
"We're paying money to a corporation that could be used for our own teachers to be certified in other areas," Lee said Friday.
He's referencing a fee that school systems pay to have Teach for America participants work in their counties. Although he referenced counties in Delaware paying $10,000 for a teacher, the "going rate" in Eastern Kentucky is $3,000, Nash said.
That money goes to help reimburse the cost of recruiting and training participants, Nash said. It's negotiable though: if a school district wants a teacher but can't afford it, the program will find local businesses to sponsor the participant.
"The thing about a district paying the fee is that they then have some skin in the game. And we are then able to leverage their dollars to raise more private dollars," Nash said.
Nationally, 80 percent of the group's funding comes from private donors, Nash said. The federal government accounts for 13 percent of all money, with local public entities making up the remaining 7 percent.
Many different people sponsor the program as well, Nash said. It's not a Republican or Democrat initiative. There aren't secret corporations sending in dollars to pull strings for nefarious means.
"Yesterday I was in the Senate Minority Leader's office, Mitch McConnell, and he said one thing he really admired about Teach For America is that we build champions on both sides of the aisle. So it's easy for him to go to bat for us," Nash said.
The program is in 36 states. Getting the go-ahead has been different in each one: Nash said legislation "sailed through" in Virginia, but there was some push back in Kentucky.
The Kentucky Education Association took a similar stance as the WVEA at first, Nash said. Eventually they agreed to allow the program into the state. It's in its second year in Kentucky now, with the KEA and others singing its praises.
"In Kentucky, after year one every principal who could hire more teachers did. And we've now grown from four districts to almost 16 districts," Nash said.
The program is not asking for any money from the state. Other states do fund the program, but Nash said that's because it works.
Right now, Teach for America is looking at "three or four southern counties" as potential placement locations. That would mean at most 15 to 20 teachers in the program's first year, Nash said. In Nash's opinion, the success of those participants would show superintendents and principals it's a worthwhile endeavor.
There's nothing in the bill or in law anywhere in the county that requires school systems to participate in the program, Nash said.
"The irony of all of this is we could go through the legislative process and every district in the state could say we actually don't want to hire any teachers," Nash said.
He doesn't anticipate that happening, but wanted to emphasize no one is forced to take on its teachers.
Tomblin continues to champion the program. Nash said he appreciates his support, and is optimistic the governor's bill will allow the group to enter the state on a broad scale.
Lee and others are fighting to make sure that doesn't happen. Friday afternoon Lee said Teach for America was still "a major sticking point" in negotiations.
The bill is currently before the Senate Education Committee. Although committee chairman Bob Plymale, D-Wayne, pledged to put the bill up for a vote Thursday, he canceled two meetings so stakeholders could discuss the bill further over the weekend.
After the second canceled meeting, Tomblin chief of staff Rob Alsop said there had been no agreement reached on the program.
Earlier in the week Lee thought the bill may have been changed so that Teach for America could not teach in elementary schools, and the its name was replaced with "national teacher corps." That's not enough, in his opinion.
The Senate Education Committee is expected to vote on the bill when it meets Tuesday.