Who Killed Teach for America?

  • Share
  • Read Later
In the midst of the 2000 presidential campaign, George W. Bush had a private breakfast in Los Angeles with members of Teach for America (TFA), the exemplary national-service program that sends recent college graduates to teach for two years in the poorest urban and rural school districts. "Everyone came out of that room glowing," said Wendy Kopp, the founder of TFA. "He really understood education and cared about what we did. He sounds like us, one of our teachers told me."

Kopp was optimistic that TFA, one of the flagship AmeriCorps programs, would have a future in a Bush Administration. Indeed, Kopp was invited to sit in the First Lady's box at Bush's first budget message to Congress in February 2001. At the same time, Teach for America was designated as one of five education and literacy programs that would receive special attention and support from Laura Bush. In 2002, the President in his State of the Union address called for increased national service and then illustrated what he meant by visiting a Teach for America school in Atlanta. "I am proud to stand up and talk about the best of America and Wendy Kopp," the President said. "I hope young Americans all across the country think about joining Teach for America."

In Atlanta, several Bush aides approached Kopp and encouraged her to quadruple the size of the Teach for America infantry, from 1,000 to 4,000 per year. (Each TFA teacher serves for two years and receives $4,725 per year in college scholarship money.) Last January Teach for America received a $2 million "challenge grant" to facilitate the expansion. But about that same time Kopp began to hear that AmeriCorps' priorities had changed. Programs that encouraged voluntarism would be favored over so-called professional corps like Teach for America. She says she was assured by John Bridgeland, the Bush voluntarism czar, that Teach for America's annual grant from AmeriCorps—about $12.5 million in scholarship money and $1.5 million for operating expenses—was safe. On July 11, however, a form letter arrived in the Teach for America offices from the Corporation for National and Community Service. "We regret to inform you," it said, "that your application was not selected for funding."

"We were shocked," Kopp told me. "There had been no warning." To be sure, Kopp was aware that the rest of AmeriCorps was being squeezed because of a bureaucratic accounting snafu and congressional reluctance to rectify the error. Most AmeriCorps programs were facing severe cuts. But Teach for America's fate was far more drastic; it had been zeroed out, eliminated. "We are no longer an AmeriCorps program," Kopp said.

Why has this happened? It's difficult to say. I spent much of last week having Orwellian conversations with functionaries at the Freedom Corps and the Corporation for National and Community Service. "This shouldn't perceived as a lack of support for Teach for America," one told me. "There's a grant process, and they didn't succeed." But it does seem that TFA was axed because it doesn't encourage community volunteer work; its members merely teach school in poor neighborhoods.

There is a legitimate philosophical difference here, and it involves the difference between voluntarism and service. Voluntarism is the act of doing valuable things that fall just outside the normal scope of governance. Service is more intense: it is a full-time commitment to do the most difficult public works—policing, teaching, social casework. The Police Corps, which exists outside AmeriCorps, and Teach for America are exemplars of the latter. They are unabashedly Úlitist; TFA accepts only 13% of all applicants. They involve rigorous training programs. And the goal is to leverage the altruism of the best and the brightest college students, putting them to work on the toughest jobs in the toughest neighborhoods—and, in the process, to help create a new generation of leaders like the "Greatest" generation, imbued with the spirit of sacrifice.

"Maybe there should be a separate funding category for professional corps," said Stephen Goldsmith, the chairman of the Corporation for National and Community Service, who added that he was not pleased that Teach for America had been defunded. "The grant selection process was narrow and quite bureaucratic, and we're going to have to review it. We'll try to get this rectified in the 2004 budget year or before."

Meanwhile, Wendy Kopp has 3,200 TFA members recruited so far who will not be receiving scholarship money this year. More broadly, AmeriCorps itself faces a reduction from approximately 55,000 to 35,000 members. Just before the summer recess, the Senate passed a $100 million appropriation to restore these cuts, but House majority leader Tom DeLay—who has made no secret of his desire to kill AmeriCorps—blocked the money. The President says he wants these funds restored, but he doesn't seem to have much control over the powerful DeLay. Even if Bush means what he says, Teach for America has been axed for 2003. I called the First Lady's office to see what she thought about that. She was unavailable for comment.