Teach For America's 20th anniversary

1)      Which event had the most attendees?

 a)      Last week’s CPAC conference

 b)      The general assembly at the NEA’s annual conference

 c)      The Teach For America alumni summit

2)      What program is the hardest to gain admission into?

 a)      Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government

 b)      The Fulbright Scholarship Program

 c)      Teach For America

3)      Which institution will field the most participants next year?

 a)      The Peace Corps

 b)      West Point and the Naval Academy, combined

 c)      Teach For America

4)      Which of the following has the highest level of racial diversity?

 a)      The U.S. general teacher population

 b)      United States Marine Corps

 c)      Teach For America

5)      Which of the following recipients of federal funds is currently considered an earmark?

 a)      Boll-weevil eradication

 b)      The Carol M. White Physical Education Program

 c)      Teach For America

If you answered c) to all of the above questions, you aced the exam. And if you are not taking a hard look at question number five, it might be time to go back and hit the books.

The past week brought incredible highs and incredible lows for Teach For America. Last Saturday, 11,000 corps members, alumni and friends gathered in Washington, DC for a summit to reflect on the state of education reform in the country. We celebrated 20 years of hard work – and 28,000 teachers placed in the highest need urban and rural communities in the country.

Our teachers – consistently reviewed as the strongest new teachers in every state that runs the data – have reached over three million students. Just last week, four members of our New Mexico corps learned that they had achieved the highest student gains of any teacher in the state in their subject areas. Little known to most, 61 percent teach beyond their two-year commitments.

And our alumni, the vast majority of whom are still in their 20s and 30s, have taken the lead on driving change in public education. From DC’s current Chancellor of Schools, Kaya Henderson, to pioneering Colorado State Senator Michael Johnston, to KIPP founders Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg, Teach For America alumni are everywhere in the field. Two-thirds still work full-time in education, and most other alumni work in fields that intersect with schools and low-income communities.

Yet our growth is imperiled by the earmark debates in Washington. Teach For America was authorized in the Higher Education Act of 2008, and has received an annual appropriation for years. Under the current interpretation of rules, though, we are considered an earmark. As such, we stand to lose $21 million in annual funding that we received in 2010, despite broad bipartisan support and general consensus that our growth is important for local communities.

This month, our application process closed. Over 47,000 young people across the country applied to join our corps for the coming school year, including 18 percent of Harvard seniors and, incredibly, 27 percent of Spelman’s senior class.

If we do not fix the interpretation of earmark rules, we will shrink our projected corps by 400 for the coming school year and by over 1,000 for fall of 2012. Over five years we will have to decrease our teaching corps by almost 5,000. This will hurt kids in our nation’s highest-need schools who most need excellent teachers. 

The country is in the middle of important, serious debates about our national debt and the role of earmarks in the budget. But while we have those debates, we should not let national authorized programs with proven results become an unintended victim. Senate resolution 23 calls on the Senate to ensure that authorized programs are not treated as earmarks. This seems like a good compromise to the current partisan divides.

Teach For America is a national, authorized program that leverages vast private resources (matching federal funds six to one with local support) and has a track record of success over two decades of work. Surely this is an area where Republicans and Democrats can come together.

Kevin Huffman is the executive vice president of public affairs at Teach For America.  He was also the winner of the Washington Post’s inaugural Next Great Pundit competition in 2009.

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