South Carolina lawmakers are poised for the first time to funnel $2 million in state sales tax revenue to a national nonprofit organization whose aim is to place hard-to-get teachers in poor K-12 schools.
Both the Senate and amended House versions of the fiscal 2013 budget contain the line item for New York-based Teach For America (TFA). A conference committee made up of three members from each chamber is working on a final budget version, which will be sent to Gov. Nikki Haley for her approval or veto.
In all, 31 TFA teachers were employed this school year in five rural school districts in the Orangeburg and Pee Dee areas of the state, according to information from the S.C. Department of Education. It was the first year for the program in South Carolina, a TFA spokeswoman said.
TFA's goal is to add 75 teachers – a 241 percent increase – throughout the state next fiscal year, which starts July 1, according to the minutes of a December meeting of the S.C. Education Oversight Committee, which unanimously recommended approval of the proposed $2 million state appropriation. The hiring goal has since been increased.
Haley also included the appropriation in her executive budget for fiscal 2013.
The $2 million would come out of state Education Improvement Act funds, which are derived from 1 cent of the state’s 6-cent sales tax.
As of fiscal 2010, Teach for America was not hurting for money, listing total annual revenue of $213.4 million and net income of $36.5 million, according to its federal tax return for that year. Of its total revenue, $45.6 million, or 21 percent, came from government grants, records show.
Supporters of Teach For America say the organization places top college graduates and professionals mainly in poor rural and urban schools that have a hard time attracting qualified teachers. Critics contend, among other things, that most TFA teachers don’t have education backgrounds; and most don’t stick with their initial schools after their two-year contracts expire.
“The real challenge in education is building capacity so you have experienced staff, especially in rural schools or inner-city schools,” said J. Renee Gordon, who runs an educator recruiting firm in Thomasville, Ga., called E Squared, and has worked with South Carolina school districts.
“Teach For America teachers aren’t highly qualified,” Gordon told The Nerve when contacted last week, adding that many of them teach at the elementary-school level because they don’t have the training or knowledge to teach certain subjects, such as math or science, in higher grades.
Citing a recent study, Gordon said more than half of TFA teachers left their initial assigned low-income schools after two years, with about 85 percent leaving those schools by their fifth year.
Gordon said that besides paying the TFA teachers’ annual salaries, school districts typically are charged a $4,000 per-placement fee by Teach For America.
S.C. Expansion Plans
Contacted this week by The Nerve, Melanie Barton, interim executive director of the Education Oversight Committee (EOC), said her committee made the recommendation for the $2 million appropriation after hearing from several superintendents whose districts employ TFA teachers.
One superintendent told the committee she would “hire everyone (in the TFA program) I could,” Barton recalled.
Barton said the proposed $2 million would be used to reimburse Teach For America for training and recruitment costs; annual salaries for the teachers would be paid by the school districts that employ them.
Divided among the proposed 75 additional TFA teachers for the upcoming school year, the $2 million works out to $26,666 per teacher.
Barton said the TFA hiring goal already has been modified and surpassed since the December meeting, noting that TFA plans to train 85 additional teachers for the Palmetto State, and that 82 of them “already have jobs.”
“That tells me they (school districts) are looking at the difficulty (in finding teachers), especially in the science areas,” she said.
The Orangeburg 5 School District employed 11 TFA teachers this school year, followed by the Darlington (seven), Clarendon 2 (six), Florence 1 (five) and Orangeburg 3 (two) districts, Department of Education records show.
Department spokesman Jay Ragley told The Nerve in a written response this week that TFA teachers receive an initial teaching certificate “just like any other first-year teacher,” adding, “In the eyes of the Department, they are viewed the same as any other first-year teacher.”
Asked whether state Superintendent of Education Mick Zais supports the Teach For America program in South Carolina, Ragley replied: “In general, Dr. Zais supports Teach For America as an alternative certification pathway for individuals who want to enter the teaching profession. There is a significant amount of research that suggests Teach For America teachers are highly effective in the classroom.”
In a written response Tuesday to The Nerve, TFA spokeswoman Natalie Laukitis said her organization “works with state and district leaders and school principals to provide a ready-supply of effective teachers in high-needs schools and subject areas, provide a pipeline for school and system leadership, and support statewide momentum to close achievement gaps.”
The Teach For America website says South Carolina has one of the lowest high school graduation rates in the country, noting that a John Hopkins University study found that the Palmetto State had more rural schools on the study’s list of “dropout factories” than any other state.
Laukitis said of the planned 85 additional TFA teachers for South Carolina for next school year, 30 will be working in Charleston.
“This makes for a total of approximately 115 Teach For America teachers in South Carolina this upcoming school year with the potential to impact approximately 8,500 students,” she said.
The proposed $2 million state appropriation for the South Carolina program would be used to “help fund the recruitment, training and ongoing professional development support of our corps members over the next two years,” Laukitis said.
Laukitis did not answer The Nerve’s question about the specific fee TFA charges school districts for its teachers, though she said in her written reply that the fee helps offset recruitment and training costs.
The TFA website says that the organization provides “intensive training, support and career development” to its teachers. It points out that “rigorous” national and state studies in North Carolina, Tennessee and Louisiana found that TFA teachers have a “greater impact on student achievement than new teachers.”
Although a newcomer to South Carolina, Teach For America has been in North Carolina since 1990 and plans to have about 480 teachers working this fall in the Tar Heel State, Laukitis said. In Georgia, TFA has been present in the metro Atlanta area since 2000, with plans in the fall to have 455 teachers there, she said.
Nationally, there are about 5,100 TFA teachers who graduated from more than 460 colleges and universities, according to the TFA website. Most are hired a short time after obtaining their bachelor’s degrees; 23 percent attended graduate school or worked full-time after receiving their bachelor’s degrees, the site says.
Annual salaries for TFA teachers range from $30,000 to $51,000, depending on the location, according to the website, which notes that they receive the same pay and benefits as other beginning teachers in their particular district.
Reach Brundrett at firstname.lastname@example.org.