Las Vegas Sun

November 28, 2015

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Legislative showdown brewing over $2 million for Teach for America

A $2 million pot of money to hire more teachers for the Clark County School District could be in danger — with a contingent of Assembly Democrats apparently digging in their heels against the money.

Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval wants to spend $2 million during the next two years to help the nonprofit Teach For America hire about 100 teachers in Clark County.

But some Democrats are objecting to the budget line item that gives money to one nonprofit working in just one part of the state.

Although $2 million boils down to less than a tenth of a percent of the state’s share of education spending, Republicans and Democrats have fiercely debated the proposal, and it could become a battle at the end of the legislative session.

Upset with the fracas, Assembly Minority Leader Pat Hickey, R-Reno, called the showdown an exercise in “political football.”

But legislative critics say they’re voicing legitimate concerns about the program.

“I’m not a fan of Teach For America,” said Assembly Majority Leader William Horne, D-Las Vegas. “I’m not a fan because I would rather invest money in teachers who are going to stay and not into teachers who are going to come for two years and then leave.”

The national nonprofit organization recruits recent college graduates to teach for a minimum of two years in high-need, at-risk schools. The group began staffing teachers in Clark County during the 2004-05 school year and has a good working relationship with the School District. The graduates work in schools that the district has traditionally had difficulties staffing.

“There aren’t enough permanent teachers who are interested in teaching in these areas,” said Sen. Michael Roberson, R-Henderson. “Lots of teachers would like to teach in Summerlin and Green Valley. That’s the reality.”

He said the choice is between helping Teach For America bring in teachers who want to teach in urban, at-risk schools or have substitute teachers teaching about 3,000 students on a permanent basis next year.

Critics have concerns that the program has a 50 percent retention rate in Clark County after the teachers’ two-year commitment ends. That compares to the districtwide 83 percent total retention rate for first- to third-year teachers, according to a legislative analysis presented last week.

“That’s a huge difference, and if you follow that curve out over time, you’re going to get to a very small number of TFA participants who stay,” said Assemblyman Andy Eisen, D-Las Vegas. “We should be looking at programs that result in career teachers who are committed to our communities as teachers.”

Teach For America representatives say that research shows that even a year of experience with a good teacher has lasting benefits for students.

Assembly Democrats last week stalled the $2 million appropriation from moving forward despite objections from Republicans and Senate Democrats.

“I do think it’s funny that out of a multibillion-dollar budget, we get hung up over a few million dollars,” said Sen. Debbie Smith, D-Sparks.

Now Smith says she’s going to put the $2 million in a bill that would provide one-time funding for the nonprofit. Some Assembly Democrats had taken issue with a direct appropriation from the budget, which would be a recurring expense every year.

Echoing Roberson’s comments, Smith said she wants to have good teachers, even just for two years, rather than have long-term substitute teachers who may not want to teach in at-risk schools.

The bill would likely pass out of the Senate Finance committee, which Smith chairs, and win approval among the Senate as a whole.

But it would end up in the Assembly Ways and Means committee, where many of the nine Democratic members have expressed concerns about the $2 million.

Assembly Speaker Marilyn Kirkpatrick, D-North Las Vegas, said she’s concerned about Teach For America retention rates and the limited geographic scope of the program, which currently only operates in Clark County.

The chairwoman of the Ways and Means committee also has concerns about the program.

“I’m not sure it has support in the Assembly,” said Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton, R-Las Vegas.

She said the appropriation should have been considered in a policy committee months ago, and now time is running out in the 120-day legislative session.

Rorie Fitzpatrick, interim superintendent of the state Education Department, said that the Clark County School District will likely need to hire up to 1,700 teachers for the upcoming school year.

The Legislature will essentially have to decide whether 50 of those teachers will be from Teach For America.

They’ll have to decide quickly, too. Legislators need to pass a budget by June 3.

Asked whether he would hold up the budget to make sure the $2 million Teach For America funding survives, Roberson smiled mischievously and said, “We will see.”

“I think it’s going to be a battle,” he said.

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