March 4, 2013; Source: San Francisco Chronicle (Associated Press)

Earl Ray Tomblin is the Democratic governor of West Virginia and a fan of the national nonprofit Teach For America (TFA). As part of his proposed education reforms in the state, Gov. Tomblin wants the state legislature to provide temporary or provisional teaching certificates for TFA teachers to serve in “high needs” public schools. Because West Virginia doesn’t issue these certificates at the moment, TFA’ers from West Virginia have to leave the state in order to teach, according to Will Nash, the head of TFA for the Appalachian region.

The governor’s proposal doesn’t sit well with the teachers’ union. Dale Lee, the president of the West Virginia Education Association, suggested that handing out teaching certificates to people with only the five weeks’ training that TFA provides contradicts the governor’s other reform program elements, such as increasing teacher training requirements. In response to a Tomblin spokesperson who suggested that West Virginia has a shortage of teachers, Lee suggested that the problem comes down to the fact that teachers make much higher salaries teaching in other states. Offering below-market wages that are often subsidized by AmeriCorps, TFA isn’t going to fix that problem, regardless of the merits or shortcomings of TFA teachers and their five-week training program.

This West Virginia controversy once again underscores the point that, on education reform, the gap between Republicans and Democrats isn’t huge. Democratic officials are willing to take on the teachers’ unions. Through programs emanating from the Obama administration, such as AmeriCorps, they are often willing to provide substantial funding to organizations such as TFA despite union questions. That doesn’t mean that promoting a five-week training program as the equivalent of a full education in teaching is right or even defensible. Would the unions accept TFA if the TFA’ers were brought in as assistants to learn under accredited teachers and develop their knowledge and skills via that method? Or is the TFA model one that, at its heart, eschews traditional teacher certification as overblown and unnecessary? —Rick Cohen