Accelify Blog

Teach for America May Still Land Federal Financing (LA)

April 14, 2011

Teach for America, a group that has been a major source of young instructors for New Orleans schools since Hurricane Katrina, is breathing a little bit more easily this week, having just gotten word that it might be able to blunt the impact of potentially devastating cuts in aid from Washington.

Until Tuesday, when new details emerged about the tentative budget deal that congressional leaders put together last week, the group was bracing for a complete loss of federal financing. But draft language in the agreement offers Teach for America at least the chance to compete for money from the Department of Education, even if the $21 million it was counting on — about 10 percent of its budget — has vanished.

The program, which recruits promising college graduates and places them in classrooms with some of the neediest students, has had an outsized presence here since Katrina. The energy and national attention put into rebuilding the city’s school system have drawn hundreds of aspiring young teachers hoping to be part of a historic effort.

Local schools have taken advantage of the national spotlight. At some New Orleans schools, more than half of the teachers and administrators are current or former Teach for America me mbers. John White, the incoming head of the Recovery School District, which oversees most New Orleans schools, was a teacher and later an executive in the program.

Unless lawmakers restore financing for the program, or its staff can come up with other sources of cash, that pipeline will have to shrink. Under pressure to get a handle on the national debt, lawmakers have decided to eliminate earmarks from the federal budget. And technically, Teach for America falls under that category.

“We’re now actively trying to secure alternative sources of funding, which is not easy,” said Kira Orange Jones, who leads Teach for America’s regional office in New Orleans. “We’re doing everything we can.”

Jones said her office isn’t ready to predict exactly what the loss of federal dollars would mean for staffing levels in the city and surrounding parishes. But she said her budget would shrink by $600,000, a 10 percent hit. Nationally, the group estimates a complete loss of federal funding would mean recruiting 4,000 fewer teachers during the next five years.

‘An enormous hit for us’

Teach for America now places more than 200 teachers in local classrooms each year for two-year stints, more than double the number from before Katrina. This year, there are nearly 450 first- and second-year Teach for America members working in Orleans and the surrounding parishes.

By comparison, Teach for America’s offices in Chicago and Los Angeles, cities with much bigger populations, have about 400 and 300 members respectively.

Paul Vallas, the outgoing superintendent of the Recovery District, says he is confident the budget cuts won’t cause a shortage of teachers. He pointed out that New Orleans is a relatively small district compared with other big cities and typically receives more Teach for America candidates than it has slots for.

Still, for many of the city’s independent charter schools, the program is a vital resource.

“The potential impact over the long term would be an enormous hit for us,” said Morgan Carter, the chief growth officer at New Orleans Science and Math Academy in eastern New Orleans. “It’s certainly not our only pipeline, but it’s a pretty big one.”

Carter said the school’s teaching staff this year is only about 7.5 percent Teach for America. But if alumni of the program are included, that figure jumps to 50 percent.

“TFA’s presence has been essential for our growth and performance to date,” said Rhonda Kalifey-Aluise, the executive direct of charter operator KIPP New Orleans and herself an alumna of the program.

She said that of the nine schools in the city that KIPP will be running by the end of the summer, seven of t