One line in David Montgomery's coverage of the state budget catches my attention:
Lawmakers voted down plenty of other spending proposals — frequently saying they would like to say yes but didn’t have the money. Out of luck were Teach for America, Jobs For America’s Graduates, senior citizen meal providers and college scholarships [David Montgomery, "Legislature: Budget Help for Teachers, Low-Income South Dakotans," that Sioux Falls paper, 2014.03.15].
No state money for Teach for America, the program that is on track to teach half of South Dakota's Native American students next year? Really?
I check the hopper: sure enough. Last month, Senator Phyllis Heineman (R-13/Sioux Falls) pitched Senate Bill 127 to her colleagues. SB 127 would have given Teach for America (TFA) $500,000 to support its efforts in largely Native American schools in South Dakota. Senate State Affairs (not Senate Education?) heard South Dakota TFA exec Jim Curran, Ponca tribal member and Lower Brule TFA teacher Bryce Drapeaux, and McLaughlin elementary principal Angie Thunker. Principal Thunker said McLaughlin is in its first year with TFA staff. She says McLaughlin has eight TFA recruits doing great work in her community and boosting student performance.
But the big schools, school administrators, and the Governor's finance folks testifed against SB 127. The Pine Ridge delegation split, with Rep. Kevin Killer supporting TFA and Senator Jim Bradford opposing. SB 127 made it out of committee by one vote, then foundered in the Senate, where it failed on two tries to get the two-thirds vote necessary to pass a spending bill.
Senator Heineman returned during last week's budget debate to ask Joint Appropriations to squeeze $250,000 into the FY2015 budget for TFA. The committee did not add that money to the budget.
Senator Heineman testified that South Dakota's past financial support of Teach for America boosted the program's reputation and private fundraising. She noted that TFA has 66 active members teaching in South Dakota. In addition, 52 TFA alumni have chosen to stay in South Dakota, and 35 of them are still teaching on the reservations. "If we're looking for a program for New South Dakotans," said Senator Heineman in front of Senate State Affairs on February 5, "TFA has been a great recruiting tool, and it's been at a pretty good bargain."
The Legislature's rejection of TFA funding means we will likely see fewer of those new South Dakotans. Staff is the major expense for TFA, just as it is for K-12 schools in general. Jim Curran tells me that TFA will likely have to bring fewer teachers to South Dakota schools next year, but they will persevere and continue to serve the state.
I remain uneasy about the possibility of Teach for America providing short-sighted school districts with an easy fiscal out for laying off experienced teachers and replacing them with cheaper TFA staff. I'm open to a discussion about the effectiveness of TFA teachers regular classroom teachers.
While I don't view Teach for America as an optimal solution (neither does passionate teacher Drapeaux, who says TFA is not perfect, nor Curran, who told Senate State Affairs that TFA is not the solution to all educational problems), cutting state funding for TFA in the absence of a better replacement is irresponsible. If the Legislature found some better program to support K-12 education in Indian Country, I'd be happy to see our measly $250,000 go there and a lot more. But I see no such new or expanded Indian education initiative in the FY 2015 budget. Heck, the Legislature couldn't even come up with $65,000 to help the Board of Regents hire one person to help Native students get into university.
State Education Secretary Melody Schopp has declared that South Dakota just can't educate all of its 14,000+ Native American students and that Teach for America fills an otherwise unfillable gap. Refusing to pay even a part of Teach for America's costs for filling that gap adds their young teachers to the big poll of educators whom our Legislature exploits, taking advantage of their energy and skills but not paying for the value they contribute.