Teach For America aid sparks heated arguments

Advocate file photo by BRYAN TUCK -- State Superintendent of Schools John White speaks during the first session of the Louisiana Department of Education's Teacher Leaders conference in this April 18, 2013, photo. Show caption
Advocate file photo by BRYAN TUCK -- State Superintendent of Schools John White speaks during the first session of the Louisiana Department of Education's Teacher Leaders conference in this April 18, 2013, photo.

While Louisiana’s top school board has approved $1.2 million in aid for Teach for America, the issue sparked a heated argument between state Superintendent of Education John White and a member of the panel.

White, a TFA alum, repeatedly defended the assistance as a way to help the state’s long-suffering public school system.

“We have 60,000 students in F-rated schools,” he said, adding that 220,000 students are performing below grade level.

“This is one source, but it is a smart investment in places where we can’t get people to go in subject areas where we can’t find good teachers,” White told the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

“We have got to make changes,” White said. “And we don’t do it without doing stuff like this.”

But BESE member Lottie Beebe, who lives in Breaux Bridge, labeled Teach for America a “staffing agency” and said it makes more sense to rely on colleges and universities for teachers.

TFA recruits top college students, puts them through five weeks of training and more later and sends them to some of the nation’s most troubled public schools for at least two years.

“Why can’t we go to the universities and find our own people and give them four or six weeks of professional development?” she asked.

White later countered that Beebe’s plan has been tried and “we’ve got a bunch of F schools” in East Baton Rouge Parish and elsewhere.

Beebe replied, “I tell you what. The university deans need to come up and look you in the face.”

White answered, “It doesn’t have anything to do with universities. It has something to do with the willingness to change, with the willingness to try something different.”

The dispute erupted on the night of June 18 at the end of a roughly 13-hour day of BESE committee meetings.

But it remains a topic in education circles, and Beebe has written a letter to the editor that expands on her views about TFA.

The Teach for America dispute is just the latest in a series of run-ins between White and Beebe.

White, who is Gov. Bobby Jindal’s chief public schools lieutenant, has played a key role in a wide range of efforts to revamp public schools.

Beebe, the new superintendent of the St. Martin Parish school system, is often aligned with teacher unions and other groups opposed to many of the initiatives pushed by White and Jindal.

The $1.2 million contract approved for TFA will allow them to recruit 25 first-year teachers and retain 23 others, all in the state-run Recovery School District.

The state has about 525 Teach for America members and has operated in Louisiana since 1990, said Michael Tipton, executive director of Teach for America/South Louisiana.

Tipton said TFA has a proven track record, which he said was reinforced by the roughly 50 students and others who waited for hours to ask BESE to approve the contract.

Earlier in the meeting Beebe complained about what she called an inordinate number of change orders on state contracts, including construction in the RSD.

“It is all about construction, building, dollars,” she said. “This is ridiculous.”

White replied, “It is ridiculous that we are rebuilding the schools after Katrina?”

Carolyn Hill, a BESE member who lives in Baton Rouge and is a frequent Beebe ally, also criticized spending in the RSD, including what she called some unaccounted spending.

“And somebody is going to jail, I tell you that,” Hill predicted.