Nonprofit Newswire | Teach for America and Public Policy

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March 20, 2010; Tulsa World | In Tulsa, a decision about budget cutbacks in the public school system might involve, for better or worse, the highly publicized nonprofit, Teach for America. Because only 72 teachers took advantage of a $5,000 incentive payment to retire early, the school system is planning to lay off 225 teachers to save $9.7 million.

This would help the district deal with a shortfall stemming from $7 million less than expected in state education aid, with deeper cuts to come next year. This would cut the district’s count of certified teachers by 7 percent.  But are all Tulsa teachers certified?

Young first-year teachers are also potentially on the layoff list. Many of these teachers are on one-year contracts, and can be laid off simply by the school board’s decision not to renew their contracts. Three hundred and fifty teachers are first-year teachers, which could mean that most if not all of the terminations could come from that teacher cohort.  Among the first year teachers are 70 recruited through Teach for America, and the district is under contract to accept another 70 TFA recruits in August.

The district and TFA were not able to tell Tulsa World reporters how TFA recruits would be affected by the layoffs.  The elementary school teacher profiled in the article appears to be a fully certified teacher, unlike what usually constitutes many TFA teachers who teach with only a few weeks of training under their belts and often lacking traditional education school training and certification.

Are the Tulsa TFA teachers paid the same as certified first-year teachers in the school system?  Will the City go ahead with hiring another 70 TFA teachers this summer as it lays off other teachers (as has happened in other school districts, such as the District of Columbia Public School system under the leadership of TFA-advocating chancellor Michelle Rhee)?

Tulsa is a good case study of the complexity of how nonprofit service providers factor into public policy decision-making. The presence of sometimes uncertified and sometimes lower-paid (or pay-subsidized) Teach for America recruits could play out in different ways in the Tulsa layoffs. While a lot of TFA-supporting publicity talks about the personal excitement and commitment of TFA recruits, in real life TFA is part of a political dynamic, sometimes rarely seen and understood by the public.

Meanwhile, New York is talking about closing a Brooklyn charter school [http://gothamschools.org/2010/03/19/city-argues-brooklyn-charter-school-should-be-shut-this-year/] because the principal seems to have pushed low-performing students out of the school in order to boost test scores and given herself a hefty raise.

Of the school’s eight teachers, six appear to be TFA recruits, and TFA is talking about pulling out of the school because of the “unstable environment” the principal has created.

Whether it is the role of TFA in an entire school system like Tulsa’s or a small charter school in Brooklyn, there are political and policy considerations in play.—Rick Cohen