PD Editorial: Keep Teach for America in California classrooms

California's schools have a dire teacher shortage. It's confounding, then, that some lawmakers want to make it worse by banning Teach for America from putting teachers in classrooms.

Teach for America has been placing new teachers primarily in urban and rural schools where a large portion of the students come from low-income homes. It recruits promising college graduates who commit to working in the schools for two years.

It's not a government program like AmeriCorps or the Peace Corps. Rather, Teach for America is a nonprofit founded 30 years ago with a mission to improve education. It sends teachers to both public and charter schools.

Teach for America fills an important niche amidst a nationwide teacher shortage that is especially acute in California. By one estimate, the state will need 100,000 more teachers over the next decade.

Many factors contribute to the shortage. Teachers, despite having college degrees, don't make a lot of money relative to other professionals. They often get dumped on in political debates. And a large cohort of teachers is reaching retirement age without enough young teachers coming into the pipeline.

The result is poorer education for California students. Class sizes are larger because there aren't enough teachers to go around. Some specialties - math and sciences in particular - are understaffed because people who are good in those subjects can earn a lot more working for a tech startup than a public school. And turnover rates are high as morale falls.

Teach for America provided more than 700 teachers statewide this year to help alleviate the shortage. They are mostly recent college graduates, and many will become career educators.

Teachers unions and their legislative allies want to ban Teach for America with Assembly Bill 221. The bill was introduced by Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, a Democrat from Los Angeles, and is a carryover from last year that must pass by Jan. 31, if at all.

Supporters argue that inexperience and high attrition rates mean Teach for America teachers aren't very helpful. Rather than rely on them, California should pay teachers more, improve mentorship programs and simply treat them better overall.

That's easier said than done. The slide into teacher shortage has been decades in the making. Lawmakers and local officials often talk big about supporting schools, but they rarely deliver. Likewise, the teachers union has considerable political clout and blocks many systemic reforms.

Throwing away the hundreds of teachers in classrooms just because they are inexperienced and not contracted to serve for many years would only make matters worse. Every teacher starts off inexperienced. Teach for America gives them a chance to gain the skills they need and decide if teaching really is for them. Over the time, then, committed, experienced teachers remain in classrooms.

The schools that tend to rely on Teach for America also tend to be schools that have the hardest time attracting new teachers. To put it bluntly, a classroom in inner city Los Angeles or a remote rural community is not for everyone.

Lawmakers should not cast aside the help California's schools receive from Teach for America. Ideally, California wouldn't need hundreds of fresh teachers willing to try teaching, but it does.

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