Amid Education Budget Cuts, Teach for America Alumni Question Nonprofit's Strategy

Students protest education budget cuts at the State Capitol on March 5, 2015.
Students protest education budget cuts at the State Capitol on March 5, 2015.
Elizabeth Stuart

In a desperate move to secure more money for sorely underfunded K-12 schools, 47 Phoenix-based Teach for America corps members and alumni have appealed to the nonprofit to return $500,000 set aside by the Arizona Legislature to fund its programs.

Governor Doug Ducey is asking schools across the state to "tighten their belts," the group wrote in a letter addressed to Lindsay DeFrancisco, executive director of Teach for America-Phoenix. "We politely ask your organization to do the same."

"There is a massive contradiction that exists when an organization that claims to work for the education of all children is part of a process that robs Peter to pay Paul," the group wrote. "We cannot support Teach for America's growth in the context of everything that is shrinking: budgets, funding sources, support for public education, and, ultimately, opportunities for children."

See also: -Hundreds Rally Against Education Budget Cuts at Arizona Capitol

DeFrancisco declined the request shortly before the Arizona Legislature passed a $9.1 billion budget Saturday that increased the K-12 budget by $102 million. After accounting for inflation and enrollment growth, however, critics say the budget leaves schools with a net loss of nearly $100 million.

After widespread protests, legislators tweaked the language of Ducey's proposal to move 5 percent of funding into the classroom, which school officials said would have slashed $113 million from support services, leading to layoffs among nurses, librarians, and bus drivers, among other things. Under the new plan, schools can spend their money flexibly, but they must publish the percentage of money to end up in the classroom and hold public meetings.

The decisions follow years of deep budget cuts that have placed Arizona last in the nation for education spending.

"This has been an incredibly challenging season for the education budget, and we know that our elected officials have been face with some tough choices," DeFrancisco said. "We do not take this . . . lightly."

Teach for America aims to tackle educational inequality by recruiting high-achieving recent college graduates to spend two years teaching in hard-to-fill posts in low-income communities, The Arizona legislature has not funded the program for the past two years, she said, forcing the organization to cut the number of teachers it can bring in to teach in low-income schools.

Schools pay teacher salaries. The $500,000 would go toward recruiting and support costs.

Jeanne Casteen, a Teach for America alumna who now works as a high school teacher at North High in Phoenix, told New Times that the group decided to reach out because it was concerned that the nonprofit had lost sight of its priorities.

"We wanted to question their model," she said. "When budgets are so tight that teachers are struggling to teach, is Teach for America really the right model to go about fixing education anymore?"

The nonprofit's model has always been controversial. While supporters say students in Teach for America classrooms outperform their peers on standardized tests, critics say the organization doesn't properly train recruits. Teach for America is built on the principle that it can draw the best and the brightest into education; however, more than 87 percent of teachers say they don't plan to stay in the profession, according to a new study from nonpartisan Mathematica Policy Research.

Teach for America enjoys strong bipartisan support in the Legislature, however.

In a recent op-ed published in the Arizona Republic, Steve Pierce (R-Prescott), Jeff Dial (R-Chandler), Adam Driggs (R-Phoenix), and Brenda Barton (R-Payson) highlighted Teach for America as one of four smart investments to "boost education (without breaking the bank)."

Giving money to Teach for America increases school resources because the nonprofit matches public funding three-to-one with private sector money, they wrote.

"Arizona must invest in developing a new generation of teachers," they wrote. "This investment will reap significant returns."

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Follow Valley Fever on Twitter at @ValleyFeverPHX. Follow Elizabeth Stuart on Twitter at @elizMstuart.

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