State treasurer calls Teach For America a ‘financial boondoggle’ for S.C. taxpayers

VIDEO: State treasurer calls Teach For America a ‘financial boondoggle’ for S.C. taxpayers

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - An organization that has received millions of dollars in taxpayer funds in order to recruit teachers in South Carolina is drawing criticism from the state treasurer.

Curtis Loftis says Teach For America is a “financial boondoggle” for Palmetto State taxpayers, citing a new report from the South Carolina Office of Inspector General that states that the group has received $23 million worth of state funding since 2012.

TFA is a national organization that describes itself as recruiting “outstanding and diverse leaders early in their careers and ask[ing] them to make a commitment that begins with two years of teaching in a public school, partnering with children and families most impacted by educational inequity.”

“When this program started, Teach for America was supposed to be self-funded,” Loftis said. “They would raise their own money. Quickly, that changed.”

Loftis says that TFA’s South Carolina operations ended up not only receiving funding from the state government but also from individual school districts. The report lists that partner school districts sent $402,500 to TFA in the 2019-20 fiscal year.

“The school districts didn’t know we were paying, and we didn’t know the school districts were paying,” he explained.

The OIG report said, for example, that one district official, “found this news to be disturbing as a taxpayer and added it was ‘almost like double paying.’”

Minutes from a 2010 State Board of Education meeting indicated that “a total of $3.6 million in private funding will be sought to offset the costs of recruiting, training, and supporting corps members in South Carolina” and that one board appointee thought at the time that TFA had “the potential to transform our rural districts.”

However, the report shows that during the last academic year, TFA recruited far fewer teachers than the Department of Education’s own Program of Alternative Certification for Educators, which allows college graduates to teach in classrooms while completing a three-year teaching certificate program.

The $315,000 PACE initiative issued 1,147 certificates, costing the state roughly $274 per teacher, while TFA issued 112 certificates, costing more than $26,000 per teacher, according to the report.

“The state is paying 100 times as much for TFA to recruit a teacher than for the state to recruit a teacher,” Loftis said. “This is at a time when the lack of teachers is crippling the state. So we’ve got to spend our money wisely.”

The release of the report comes amid continued concerns over a shortage of teachers in South Carolina. State Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman said in December 2020 that the COVID-19 pandemic has only “intensified the teacher crisis.”

That’s one reason alternative programs such as PACE are essential for helping to fill positions in schools, explained Educator Services Director Mary Hipp of the S.C. Department of Education.

“They have some real, business world experience,” she said. “It’s a challenging, rigorous process. You are learning to teach while you are teaching. It’s not for the faint of heart.”

When asked how PACE differs from programs such as Teach for America, Hipp told Live 5 Investigates that PACE teachers are seeking to become full-time educators. Many already live in the communities in which they teach, she said, so they may be more invested to stay long-term.

“TFA works a little differently in that those individuals are typically recruited for two years,” Hipp said, adding that in South Carolina, “they have the option to stay beyond two years... but there’s no requirement they do so.”

TFA has a regional office near Hampton Park in Charleston, but the organization is based in New York. The report says that in the 2019-20 fiscal year, TFA’s South Carolina program paid $851,000 in fees to the New York office.

TFA’s South Carolina executive director reportedly explained that these fees, which amounted to 20 percent of total spending for the year, “were for support services, to include human resources, legal support, technical support, recruiting/marketing, and finance.”

Live 5 Investigates requested an interview with TFA, but the organization instead sent a statement reading in part that “we appreciate rigorous evaluation of our program, and welcome input that will help us to continuously improve both opportunities and outcomes for our students as we continue our commitment to this critical work.”

TFA also says that their teachers in South Carolina have served more than 55,000 students in more than 2,200 classrooms since 2011.

However, Loftis believes the group’s time in the Palmetto State needs to come to an end.

“If you promise us X, you better deliver us X, or you’re going to have to pay a penalty,” Loftis said.

The following is a statement from Teach for America South Carolina.

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