The Wooing of Teach For America

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While TFA never had much of a problem persuading college students to consider a two-year stint in public service, it's been a different story with reluctant school districts. For years the organization got a chilly reception from school districts--but all that's changed with the national attention the organization has garnered, positive research findings, and its love fest with the US Congress. Now, more and more school districts are clamoring to be next in line to land the corps of talented recent grads.

This fall, TFA is set to open shop in Denver, with Jacksonville slated for the following year. Meanwhile, at least Kansas City, Boston and Indianapolis are all vying to be the next announced site.

The competition among districts is intense. Even 10 years ago, Teach For America would agree to go into a district on the basis of little more than a warm smile--and sometimes not even a handshake. With virtually no district financial obligation, each TFA site would then single-handedly take on the task of raising private money to provide the support corps members needed.

No longer. For one, districts must agree up front to take on a fair share of the $13,000 a year it costs to support a corps member. The district, once little more than the conduit through which TFA gained entree, now has to make a case that that they're serious about closing the achievement gap--not just filling teacher shortages in those hard-to-staff math and science positions. Districts must also agree to place corps members across the full range of subjects and grades.

Says one foundation official who has been vying for years to get TFA into her city's schools: "TFA doesn't just require that you get the school district on board. There's also a lot of communication, negotiation and conversations with the philanthropic community and the business community. Before they'll agree to come, you have to convince them that you can sustain well over a million dollars in funding each and every year."

By 2010, TFA expects to increase its presence to a total of 33 sites and double the size of its corps to 7,500, which brings us back to our first point. From the start, TFA never had any problem convincing talented college grads to teach for two years. Now that TFA is upping the ante for districts, it may be an opportune time to up the ante for TFA corps members, requiring them to serve for three--rather than two--years. Different vision? Perhaps. But the impact of such a move on schools and the children in them would unquestionably move the organization closer to its primary mission of an equitable education for all.