I-TEAM: Teach for America – do the dollars make sense?

Published: Mar. 4, 2021 at 4:36 PM EST
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - Teach for America recruits are spanned out across South Carolina, but closing in locally, there is only one educator provided by Teach for America – in Aiken County.

In Georgia, we found zero locally. Instead, nearly 140 recruits are all clustered near Atlanta.

But both states are sending your tax dollars — hundreds of thousands, even millions over time — not to local schools, but to the Teach for America headquarters in New York City.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, students in South Carolina were struggling.

U.S. News & World Report ranked the Palmetto State’s public education system 43rd in the country.

At the start of this school year, the state was short 700 teachers.

Teach for America is a nonprofit that reaches 350 urban and rural districts nationally since its founding in 1990.

Teach for America says half of its current recruits are people of color and half come from low-income backgrounds to better help serve their mission of working “toward the day when every child will receive an excellent and equitable education.”

As it advertises on its YouTube channel, the organization aims to create opportunity for all communities.

“Depending on your ZIP code, there may be a completely different opportunity given to you not only in the classroom but in life,” an ad says. “We are looking to even that playing field.”

Curtis Loftis is the state treasurer in South Carolina -- a state with its own teacher recruitment program taxpayers already fund.

“Teach for America has a slick advertising campaign,” Loftis said. “Its marketing is genius.”

So he wanted to know how much you’ve been paying Teach for America to do the very same job.

“It was costing us 100 times more to recruit a teacher than it costs the state to recruit one — 100 times!” Loftis said.

“For a long time, we thought it was 10 times more. I finally got out my calculator started doing the zeros in the room full of accountants and lawyers. We were just all kind of shocked.”

The state treasurer called in the Office of Inspector General to investigate.

It found Teach for America recruited only 112 teachers at a cost of $26,785 per teacher.

Compare that to the state program, called PACE, that recruited 1,147 teachers at $274 per position.

Most surprising, investigators uncovered a “double paying” practice.

Individual school districts were also paying Teach for America, not realizing the state was paying $3 million every year, for a total of $23 million since 2012.

“In this case, students are being robbed, and we need to protect our students,” Loftis said.

If students are being robbed, why still support it?

“It just takes one powerful board member,” Loftis said.

A check of the Teach for America South Carolina board includes members from Boeing and Wells Fargo.

The inspector general also noted nearly 20% of all South Carolina funding was going to a Teach for America Wells Fargo account on Park Avenue in New York City for its headquarters on Broadway — instead of local recruitment.

“A poor state like S.C., we sent 850K to the mother ship on Park Avenue,” Loftis said.

“If that isn’t offensive, I don’t know what is. … We don’t need to fund corporate towers in the name of education.”

The I-Team found only one corps member locally – in Aiken County.

We found zero corps members in any other counties – including Allendale County, where the state took over in 2017 after declaring a “state of emergency” for poor student performance.

Is Loftis now encouraging every state treasurer to look at this?

“It is happening other places, but the problem is nobody cares,” Loftis said.

“To be clear, here they will continue getting their funding.”

In Georgia, the I-Team found the state isn’t even sure how much funding it’s sending to Teach for America.

The Georgia Department of Education released budget records to us that show taxpayers spent $681,330 for a five-week “pre-service training to prepare new teachers who will serve in the metro Atlanta region” in 2020.

When we asked the state if local districts were also paying Teach for America, we were told: “You would need to check with those school districts on this question.”

We contacted the three metro Atlanta districts more than a week ago.

None could tell us by air time how much they were paying additionally, if anything, for the 139 corps members they hired.

Teach for America did not interview with the I-Team but did release this statement:

“South Carolina’s most vulnerable children lack access to the quality education. … This is due in part to a critical teacher shortage, as well as systemic education failures in the state. … Since 2011, in South Carolina our teachers have served more than 55,000 students in over 2,200 classrooms and in doing so, improving student achievement.”

Loftis isn’t so sure that is a good return on investment.

“And who pays the price? Our kids,” Loftis said. “We’re watching our education systems stutter, if not fail. They were doing so before COVID came along, and that we know what’s happening now, with COVID. We’ve got to spend our money correctly.”

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