By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, February 15, 2011; 12:00 AM
The best teacher in America was in Washington over the weekend. So was the best principal. I cannot name these individuals because they are early in their careers, and the truth of the matter is that I am just playing the odds. They are members of Teach for America, a kind of Peace Corps for the school room - a program so select that most applicants had an easier time being admitted to their college than they did getting into Teach for America. No matter. Its funding is being cut.
Teach for America is supposed to produce smart students. It also produces incredible statistics. This year it got 48,000 applicants and accepted 5,300 of them. About 18 percent of the Harvard senior class applied; so did 27 percent of Spelman's, a traditionally black women's school. Last year, 19 percent of those accepted had a graduate degree or worked full time in some professional capacity. This is not a program for the aimless.
I'm sure you know all about Teach for America. I did not - not in any detail. Over the weekend, though, Joel Klein, who had until recently been chancellor of the New York public schools, came from what Teach for America called "a summit." He was tingling. Here were about 4,000 current teachers and about 6,000 alumni - and, of course, the creator of the program, Wendy Kopp. Klein is an indefatigable believer in public education and the supreme importance of good teaching. "You could feel something in that room," he said. "Something that's hard to measure."
What can certainly be measured is the budgetary hit that TFA is set to take - about $20 million or, to put it another way, 400 teachers. This is because TFA's money is contained in an annual earmark, and earmarks, as we all know, have been abolished because they are evil.
And while there is a good chance the TFA earmark will be restored, the ax being taken to the program is representative of the budgetary madness that has come over Washington. Spurred by the Tea Party, Republicans in the House have come up with budget cuts that do little to rein in the deficit but would severely harm programs they have long disliked. They want to end funding for public broadcasting, maul the IRS and cut the Education Department budget by nearly $5 billion, yet more pain for TFA. What are these people thinking?
I am not one who equates dollars spent with educational excellence. (I once had a child in Washington's public schools - a teachable moment, if there ever was one.) But no one can deny the worth of such programs as Teach for America or the fact that, even in education, you get what you pay for. If, in fact, the recurring news that our kids are dumber, lazier, stupider - I'm trying to be politically correct - than kids in other advanced nations is ever going to be rectified, it will not be done on the cheap.
The federal budget, now $3.8 trillion, will never be balanced by trimming this or that program. The formula is painful, but no mystery: Limit entitlements (Social Security, Medicare, etc.), severely cut the defense budget and raise taxes on the rich, the very rich and the stupendously rich. Anything after that, as the Talmud said in a somewhat different context, is mere commentary.
I have argued with Klein and others about their insistence on the paramount importance of teachers. But I have benefited myself from the interest of good teachers, and I share with Klein, Kopp and countless education reformers the belief that poverty, race or ethnicity must not smother the talents, intellect or dreams of any child.
Education is an investment. Our national business plan has to take that into account. It costs us a fortune to turn out functionally illiterate kids who can't do math or write a decent sentence. America's lousy education system is nothing new. It has long been the product of lax standards, ludicrous decentralization (the illogical belief that local school boards know best) and an economy that provided jobs for anyone willing to work. That, now, is sheer nostalgia.
If the maniacal budget cutters have their way, the best teacher in America will become another investment banker, and the best principal will become yet another lawyer, and the kids who might have contributed something to their community or nation will become expensive failures - a human deficit as important as the one the Treasury's now running.