Cut Teach for America funding and we'll be closer to flunking the future

Richard Cohen
Tuesday, February 15, 2011; A21

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.

But TFA is set to take a budgetary hit of 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.

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.

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.

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 fiscal one the Treasury's running.

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