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Eli Broad, others pledge $100 million to Teach for America endowment

January 27, 2011 | 10:08 am

Philanthropist Eli Broad and three other donors announced Thursday a $100-million endowment to make Teach for America a permanent teacher-training program.

Broad's foundation pledged $25 million to the endowment, spurring three other matching donations from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, the Robertson Foundation and philanthropists Steve and Sue Mandel, officials said.

Education-reform efforts are a major thrust of the Southern California-based Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation. Teach for America, which has a local regional office, currently has 270 teachers working in the Los Angeles area.

Teach for America typically draws from the brightest recent college grads, sending more than 28,000 recruits over the past 20 years to teach for two years in some of the nation’s most challenging urban schools.

Two-thirds of alumni continue to work full time in education, half of them as classroom teachers, according to the organization. More than 550 have become school principals or district superintendents.

Others hold influential positions in other fields, including journalism, public-policy foundations and government. A primary aim of founder Wendy Kopp was to draw talent and public interest to the challenge of supporting and improving public education.

“Under Wendy Kopp’s leadership, Teach for America has quickly evolved from an innovative idea into what has become nothing less than an enduring American institution that has forever changed the landscape of public education,” Broad said in a statement.

Among the most high-profile alums is outspoken former District of Columbia schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, a heroine to many school reformers and a bête noire to many teachers and teacher unions. Her stormy tenure included a much-watched initiative linking teacher evaluations to student performance on standardized tests. The results contributed to scores of teacher firings.

Teach for America has generated wide praise, but critics have emerged as well. Early on, the program’s intensive training was not regarded as effective enough to result in consistently good teaching. TFA leaders now say research demonstrates their training program has become among the nation’s best.

More recently, a coalition of groups has challenged the designation of TFA’s rookie teachers — who enter the classroom after a brief, whirlwind training regimen — as highly qualified. They assert that many hard-to-staff urban public schools and charter schools claiming to be staffed by highly qualified teachers are not.

On Thursday, these groups sent a letter to President Obama decrying a new federal law “lowering teaching standards” required under the federal No Child Left Behind Law. The legislation, supported by TFA, followed on the heels of successful litigation that challenged the designation of uncredentialed teachers as highly qualified.

“The provision allows thousands of under-prepared and inexperienced teachers to continue to be assigned disproportionately to low-income, minority, special education and English language learner students and denies parents notification of the teachers’ under-prepared status,” said a statement from Public Advocates, a San Francisco-based law firm that spearheaded the legal challenge. The provision benefitting TFA “was quietly added by key congressional leaders” into an interim budget resolution Congress passed late last year allowing the government to continue paying its bills.

Charter schools are free, publicly funded and run independently of school districts. Many rely heavily on early-career teachers from TFA and other programs. The relatively low salaries of these uncredentialed first- and second-year teachers have helped many charters lower staffing costs.

This has helped charters hire more teachers and offer classes with fewer students. It also allows charters to assert in required public disclosures that all of these teachers are highly qualified.

The new endowment will generate about 2% of Teach for America’s annual operating budget, officials said, as part of many funding sources and grants that support the organization.

Teach for America recently announced plans to double in size by 2015. Currently, more than 8,200 corps members are teaching in 39 places around the country, according to TFA.

The Broad Foundation awards an annual prize to a school district it regards as a leader in innovative reforms. The foundation also is known for awarding grants to charter schools and for funding a training program for top school-district administrators. Incoming L.A. schools Supt. John Deasy is an alum of that program.

-- Howard Blume