CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- To West Virginia Board of Education members, Teach for America seemed like a no-brainer.
Throughout the state, there is a crippling shortage of teachers. Every year, some of the brightest college graduates leave West Virginia for opportunities elsewhere and there is a perpetual struggle to get young talent to join the teaching force.
Given these factors, Teach for America, a competitive AmeriCorps-type teaching program that recruits top college graduates to teach in some of the most downtrodden school districts in the country for two years, sounded like a match made in heaven to members of the state school board.
"It's controversial, but this is an excellent program," board member Priscilla Haden said at a retreat in March.
In behind-the-scenes talks, state Board of Education members say they support starting a Teach for America program, according to a voice recording obtained by the Gazette last week. But restrictive state laws have set up major legislative roadblocks to establishing the program in West Virginia, and teachers unions also oppose the program.
"If we had teachers in all the slots, then I can see why we would be picky about [Teach for America]," board member Gayle Manchin said at a meeting at Stonewall Resort in March, according to the voice recording. "But a lot of [teachers] sitting in those seats aren't qualified in their content area. [School boards] are just trying to put warm bodies into the seats. This is the stuff that drives you insane."
Last year in West Virginia, there was a statewide shortage of 690 full-time teachers, according to state education data. About half of West Virginia's teaching force will be eligible to retire in the next decade, according to numbers from the American Federation of Teachers.
Starting a Teach for America program to increase the supply of educators is a major recommendation of a $750,000 audit of the state's education system. The audit, released by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin in January, lays out a series of sweeping reforms from recruiting teachers to implementing energy savings, that could save the state $90 million a year.
The state board has wrestled for months on how to respond to the politically charged audit. They have hedged on some reform issues like taking seniority out of the hiring process for teachers, according to the tape recording. But when it comes to TFA, board members were unequivocal in their support.
Teach for America opened an Appalachia branch in April 2011, with 30 TFA members serving as first-year teachers in some of eastern Kentucky's highest-needs schools. TFA plans to bring 90 teachers to understaffed schools in the area in the next three years.
But the program can't take off in West Virginia, where state law essentially boxes out the TFA program, according to Heather Deskins, general counsel for the state Department of Education.
State law says that a new alternatively certified teacher must have 18 hours of higher education training and have a bachelor's degree in the subject area they want to teach, said Deskins.
"There is still no viable alternative teacher pathway, and that's obviously a barrier to TFA," said Natalie Laukitis, TFA's director of regional communications. "That barrier is fairly concrete. Unfortunately there's been no real movement in West Virginia on that piece."
During the last legislative session, state lawmakers passed two bills that aimed to ease requirements for people to join the teaching force, HB4010 and HB4122.
Generally, both bills create the space for alternative licensure of teachers who receive a bachelor's degree in disciplines that align to teaching subjects. But while the new laws roll back some of the most arduous education requirements, they only offer a degree of flexibility. Someone who majors in chemistry in college would still be pigeonholed and only allowed to teach chemistry in public schools. Someone who majored in math but wants to teach English would be out of luck.
In the voice recording, a state Department of Education aide admitted that current state law is "problematic because in cases of elementary education, there's no applicable bachelor's degree."
Will Nash, executive director of the Appalachia branch of Teach for America, said in earlier interview that TFA prides itself on opening up the teaching profession to as many people as possible, but "the current legislation [in West Virginia] makes for a difficult climate to get new teachers to the state."
He said West Virginia's two bill changes are steps in the right direction, but "we would love to see some specific language in this bill that would allow alternative certification based on a demonstration of subject mastery that would open opportunities for the diversity of our candidates (like those candidates who might not possess a BA/BS in a specific discipline but have the requisite knowledge to teach that subject area as proven by passage of a content knowledge test like the PRAXIS)."
Manchin said she didn't know why the state was trying to change TFA if was expanding across the country.
"They've got a program that's working, why are we trying to fix it?" Manchin said in the recording. "It works in other states but they try to come to West Virginia and we're trying to fix it? You wouldn't bring program in the program in the first place if it wasn't working."
Teach for America is controversial in education circles, with many teachers unions decrying the program as nothing more than a résumé-builder for recent college grads who don't have a love for teaching.
Judy Hale, president of the state chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, said she wasn't sure if students in TFA entered the program for the right reasons.
"I'm not totally opposed to it, but they tend to be people who are building a resume and are here today and gone tomorrow," said Hale. "I'm not sure Teach for America is the best way to educate our kids."
At its retreat in March, the state board agreed to endorse a law change that would eliminate the barriers to starting a Teach for America program in their final response to the education audit.
Reach Amy Julia Harris at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-4814.