Teach for America's federal funds threatened by grant competition proposal

By Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 11, 2010; 10:40 PM

Teach for America, which enlists recent college graduates for two-year stints in some of the nation's most troubled public schools, would lose its uncontested claim on $18 million in federal funding under an Obama administration proposal to launch a grant competition for teacher training programs.

At first blush, the proposal to end Teach for America's noncompetitive grant seems a surprising setback for a program viewed favorably by federal officials, lawmakers and philanthropists with influence in public education.

But Education Secretary Arne Duncan said the proposal to merge that funding with other programs, if approved by Congress, would make $235 million available for initiatives to recruit and prepare teachers for high-need schools.

"We think there's a chance for programs that are doing a great job to actually increase their funding," Duncan told reporters last week when asked about Teach for America. "It's an expanded pool of resources and we want the best to rise to the top. . . . There's a big, big opportunity out there for high performers."

But leaders of the 20-year-old nonprofit organization, based in New York, have expressed concerns about the budget proposal because they are counting on federal funding to help finance an expansion. So a dedicated grant could be more valuable to the organization than the chance to win more money.

"We're really hopeful that Congress will put us in the budget," said Teach for America spokeswoman Kerci Marcello Stroud, "so we can take advantage of this tremendous opportunity for us to grow and reach more kids."

Stroud said the proposed grant competition could raise difficulties for the organization. "It's hard to plan," she said. "We have to plan so far in advance."

Teach for America placed 4,100 new teachers in schools last fall, more than double the number five years earlier, and it hopes to grow even more. The organization has provided the Washington region with many teachers over the years, including 415 this year in the District and Prince George's County. D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee is one of its most famous alumni.

Backers say the program is one of the best alternative pathways into the profession; critics say the teachers it places are ill prepared and often do no better than those who come from teacher colleges with regular credentials.

On various occasions, Duncan has praised Teach for America. He also has said many teacher colleges do a "mediocre job" preparing teachers for the classroom.

Teach for America's $18 million noncompetitive grant, authorized under the federal higher-education law, amounts to a tiny fraction of the $59 billion Education Department budget for the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30. But Stroud said the grant and a few million dollars from other federal sources account for more than 10 percent of the organization's $189 million budget. Teach for America has received federal education funding for several years, according to the organization, including a $14.9 million grant in the last fiscal year.

Whether the administration's proposal will win congressional approval remains to be seen.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said he was "disappointed" that Teach for America was not specifically included in the administration's budget. "This is a proven program," he said. "If you're effective and have demonstrated success, does it make sense that you're rolling the dice potentially every year in terms of continued funding?"

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