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What George Will Got Right About Teach for America -- and What He Got Wrong

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I found myself in rare agreement with George Will when I read his column lauding Teach For America and lamenting the lapse of the organization's earmark. Over the last two decades, Teach For America has become an engine for bringing talent to struggling public schools, and in the process, generated a force for reform. Wendy Kopp's recent book, A Chance to Make History, makes that case powerfully. As the organization has studied what makes a great teacher, it has also learned what makes a great school leader: high expectations for students and relentless efforts to enable them to meet these expectations. The work that Teach For America does to supply these transformational classroom leaders -- some of whom go on to lead schools and even whole districts -- has made reform possible in places written off by many in the education field.

Because of the organization's documented impact, George Will argues that the earmark for Teach For America ought to be extended, despite the budget crisis. I'm not a big fan of earmarks, but it's important to understand that in cases like Teach For America's, they exist for a reason. And the reason is this: the flawed way most federal grant programs are designed leave innovative organizations few options but to pursue them.

There are two typical designs for federal grant programs. One puts decision making in the hands of local or state officials, requiring little to no accountability for results -- or even precision -- regarding what the government hopes to achieve. These block grants often benefit longstanding grantees at the expense of innovators, or cut up funding so finely that national organizations must expend excessive amounts of resources accessing them through state or local systems.

The other design is a "recipe program," in which funding goes to a limited universe of grantees to do a limited universe of things. Even if such grants are awarded through competition, innovative providers may well be left out if they are outside of the establishment, pursuing nontraditional solutions -- as has been the case with Teach For America.

Earmarks are a symptom -- not a solution. They occur because most federal doors are closed to innovative programs, regardless of their impact. What we need are new policy designs. And fortunately, we have a model.

Teach For America's first federal funding came not from an earmark, or even from the Department of Education. It came from AmeriCorps, which awarded a "national direct" grant to Teach For America in 1994. If you read Wendy Kopp's first book, One Day All Children, you will know that she had plenty of frustrations with the Corporation for National and Community Service, the agency that administers AmeriCorps. But it was clear that this early funding came at a crucial time for the organization, and may well have prevented it from folding before it ever had a chance to prove itself. Today, Teach For America receives $11.4 million plus education awards from AmeriCorps for its corps members, who help close the achievement gap by teaching in urban and rural schools.

AmeriCorps is different from most federal grant programs for many reasons. First, it is wide open -- any nonprofit or state or local public agency can apply. Second, it does not limit its support to specific issues or program designs, leaving great flexibility for organizations to design interventions that may not fit established protocols. Its only restriction is the use of AmeriCorps members as the delivery system -- but these AmeriCorps members may be any age over 18 and any education level, at the discretion of the grantee. Third, it makes "national direct" grants to national organizations operating in multiple states, which eases the administrative burden on national organizations like Teach For America. Fourth, it has since its inception required all grantees to specify measurable outcomes they intend to achieve, and expects them to report on them as a condition of continued funding. Fifth, all AmeriCorps programs re-compete every three years, ensuring that poor performers do not receive continued funding and that top programs can grow. And finally, it requires a rather substantial private sector contribution, as both a check on local buy-in and to leverage federal dollars.

As a result of this unique design. AmeriCorps has played an important role in the start up or growth of leading innovators, from Harlem Children's Zone to Habitat for Humanity, as well as many grassroots groups unlikely to be able to access most federal funding sources.

AmeriCorps's track record of supporting field-changing organizations is the main reason that the Social Innovation Fund, a new program to support the growth of innovative organizations, was placed at the Corporation for National and Community Service. Through an innovative public-private partnership, the Social Innovation Fund and private sector grantmakers co-invest in programs that increase the scale of community-based solutions that have evidence of real impact.

Unfortunately, AmeriCorps and the Social Innovation Fund are both on the chopping block in HR 1, the House appropriations bill, which George Will declines to mention. And if they go, a substantial share of Teach For America's budget will disappear along with that of other innovative and grassroots organizations.

All programs aren't equal. It's time for Washington policymakers to do the hard work of sorting out which ones deserve to go, and which deserve to grow, not just survive. AmeriCorps and the Social Innovation Fund fit that second profile.