Teach For America, the education organization that has placed recent college graduates in low-income public schools, is getting $100 million to launch its first-ever endowment in hopes of making the grass-roots organization a permanent fixture in education.
The program — which is now in communities from Atlanta to rural New Mexico to Los Angeles — announced Thursday that four philanthropists are joining to create a stable, long-term source of money. It's welcome news for an organization that had more than 46,000 applications for just 4,400 teaching slots this academic year.
"A few years ago we embraced the priority of making Teach For America an enduring American institution that can thrive as long as the problem we're working to address persists," said founder Wendy Kopp, who dreamed up Teach For America for her undergraduate thesis and launched it in 1990. "I think it's only appropriate in our country — which aspires to be a place of equal opportunity — that we have an institution which is about our future leaders making good on that promise."
It's also likely to be unwelcome news for teachers' unions and other opponents, who say Teach For America puts inexperienced 20-somethings with just five weeks of training in classrooms and most of them move on after their two years of service. Some have criticized it as an organization that lets top graduates experiment in public education for a couple of years before moving on to something else.
Teach for America says one-third of its alumni keep teaching after two years, and two out of three remain in the field, some in as public-policy analysts or school administrators. It points to studies that show its teachers are at least as effective as those who enter the teaching profession in more traditional ways.
The idea of an endowment started with philanthropist Eli Broad, who pledged $25 million from his Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation and encouraged others to commit to the project. Three more foundations stepped up with matching funds: the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, the Robertson Foundation and philanthropists Steve and Sue Mandel.
The endowment will only produce about 2 percent of Teach For America's $200 million budget at first, but Kopp said that will grow over time. The organization gets its budget from nonprofits, corporations and federal grants, but those aren't always dependable.
Kopp said she hopes that steady stream of revenue means the organization can double the number of active corps members serving two-year terms to 15,000 and increase the communities they reach from 39 to 60.
Broad, whose foundation gives out the nation's top prize in public education each year, has donated $41 million total to Teach For America since its inception. He said he wanted to form an endowment to ensure the program persists.
"Instead of it being viewed as a movement, we have to make it look like an institution," Broad said in a telephone interview. "One of the ways you do that is an endowment like a college or university has."
Not only is Teach for America celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, but Kopp's second book, "A Chance to Make History," debuted this week. The book outlines the lessons Kopp has learned as she's watched her organization's teachers try to change educational outcomes for the nation's poorest children.
"When I started on this endeavor 20 years ago, truly the prevailing notion at the time was that kids' socio-economic circumstances would determine their educational outcome," Kopp said. "Today we're surrounded by hundreds of examples of whole classrooms and schools that are taking kids from rural and urban areas and putting them on a different trajectory."