Save the teachers

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As Isabel was preparing to blow into Washington last week, House and Senate negotiators were blowing off hundreds of thousands of poor and minority schoolchildren: They stripped all government support for Teach For America, the organization that sends talented teachers into our poorest school districts. And President Bush stood silently by and let it happen.

Is this the "education president" who talks about improving poorly performing schools and closing the achievement gap between whites and minorities?

Mr. Bush says he's a big fan of Teach For America - he even urged expansion of it in his 2002 State of the Union address. For good reason: The program attracts and trains some of the best recent college graduates and places them in just the kind of schools serving just the kind of students that Bush says need the most help. Yet this summer he did not convince majority leader Tom DeLay to bring to a House vote the $100 million Senate-approved supplemental appropriations bill for AmeriCorps, the umbrella organization that funds Teach For America. Nor did Bush persuade negotiators to restore AmeriCorps to the compromise package. So Teach For America loses part of its operating budget and corps members lose their education grants.

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To appreciate the importance of Teach For America, consider what it will take to close the achievement gap between white and minority students. There is a consensus among education experts that the biggest need of poor school districts is good teachers.

Teach For America supplies good teachers to schools that need them most: This year 3,200 corps members are working in the nation's poorest communities. In its 13-year history, Teach For America has placed 10,000 corps members in classrooms, serving 1.5 million students. Even better, it sends into our poorest districts a group of teachers with an overall level of talent and motivation that most rich districts could only hope for.

Teach For America convinces high-performing recent college graduates - 16,000 last year - from some of the most selective colleges and universities to compete for a job that "nobody wants."

The miracle of this accomplishment was brought home to me by a recent conversation with my son, who is a corps member teaching in a predominantly Hispanic school in Texas. He told me and his dad that our enthusiasm for his decision to join Teach For America confounds his fellow corps members. They understand after he tells them his mom's a sociologist who studies educational inequality. But many of their parents think their sons and daughters are suited for bigger and better things.

This is the crux of the problem. The loss of AmeriCorps funding may limit Teach For America's ability to draw those "suited for bigger and better things" into teaching in impoverished schools. Without the modest grants that allowed corps members to pay back some of their student loans or partially finance future studies, some - maybe many - would-be recruits will find it too financially daunting to join Teach For America.

Bush can't argue that his failure to support Teach For America is in line with popular or expert opinion. Polls, including one I conducted last year, show that about three-quarters of adults share his sense that closing the achievement gap between white and minority students is very important. A recent study shows that the great majority of principals in the schools in which corps members are placed believe the program has had a strong, positive affect on their schools. And there has been a groundswell of enthusiasm for Teach For America, including support from 44 governors, among them the president's brother.

It is time for supporters of Teach For America and of better educational opportunities for our most underserved children to put our money where our mouths are. Let's help Teach For America make up for the loss of AmeriCorps funding and urge Congress to increase the proposed 2004 AmeriCorps appropriations to the levels Bush has requested. Failing that, when we next go to the ballot box let's hold them accountable for their decision to leave poor children further behind.

Pamela Barnhouse Walters is James H. Rudy Professor of Sociology at Indiana University and director of the Center for Education and Society.

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