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August 1, 2014

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Las Vegas City Council weighing support for embattled Teach for America

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Mona Shield Payne

Victor Wakefield, executive director of Teach For America, participates with students (right to left) Sandra Valdivia, Jose Navarro, Antonio Nunez and Alejandro Acevas while reading bios on Jewish people while learning about the Holocaust during Teach For America Week at Dell H. Robison Middle School in Las Vegas Tuesday, April 30, 2013.

Teach for America

Clark County School District Trustee Deanna Wright goes over the day's lesson plan about the Holocaust with eighth-grade teacher Matt Angelo prior to the start of English Literature class during Teach For America Week at Dell H. Robison Middle School in Las Vegas Tuesday, April 30, 2013. Launch slideshow »

Public funding for the nonprofit Teach for America has come under increasing scrutiny in recent months and on Wednesday the Las Vegas City Council will enter the fracas when it considers a two-year agreement worth $62,500 with the organization.

If approved, the funding would help cover training and development costs for 25 teachers who will be placed in underperforming schools in the city's urban core.

Funding for the nonprofit made national headlines earlier this year after Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed a $1.5 million appropriation for Teach for America in the state's higher education budget. In a letter, Dayton questioned why Teach for America, which generated $270 million in revenues in 2011, the most recent year for which data is available, needed additional public funding. He also said his state didn't hold a competitive process before targeting the funds to Teach for America.

Efforts to secure $2 million in funds, enough for about 100 new teachers, from the Nevada Legislature also failed this past session amidst various criticisms, including that teachers in the program, who are held only to a two-year commitment, don't stick around Nevada once they're finished.

"I'm not a fan because I would rather invest money in teachers who are going to stay and not into teachers who are going to come for two years and then leave," Assembly Majority Leader William Horne, D-Las Vegas, said in May.

Victor Wakefield, Teach for America's Las Vegas Valley executive director, said much of the criticism of the organization has been off base, noting that about two thirds of teachers continue to work in the Clark County School District after their initial two-year commitment is up. Even more stay involved in education through work at nonprofits or other policy organizations, he said.

The national nonprofit organization recruits recent college graduates to teach for a minimum of two years in high-need, at-risk schools, usually ones the school district has troubled staffing. The organization has been in Clark County since 2004 and will have 270 teachers in classrooms next semester, Wakefield said.

Although the national organization has hundreds of millions in assets, each local operation is responsible for raising the majority of its own funds, Wakefield said, with about 90 percent of his operating budget coming from local donors, including private citizens, foundations and corporations. More funding, he said, means more teachers the organization is able to place in local schools.

Although the city's contribution pales in comparison to the millions of dollars discussed at the state level, it's part of a larger effort by the city to promote education, which in recent months has funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars to several educational nonprofits, including the Public Education Foundation and Communities in Schools.

The city approached Teach for America about partnering in its efforts, Wakefield said, and as in the case with some of the city's other educational programs, no competitive bid was held for the funding.

John Vellardita, executive director of the Clark County Educators Association, applauded Las Vegas for getting more involved in educational issues, but he raised concerns about the transparency of the process.

"I think there needs to be a question posed to organizations like Teach for America as to why they need the seed money or financing from any public entity," he said. "Every public agency, whether it's the city, county or state, is hurting with the limited resources they have. To spend that kind of money certainly warrants further discussion and an open bidding process."

Councilwoman Lois Tarkanian, who has an extensive background in education, including serving on the Clark County school board, said Teach for America's track record of success makes them an ideal partner that she plans to support, but the city will closely monitor the program to make sure its investment pays off.

"We need to help bring up the education within our city and in order to do that, we need to be part of the solution," she said. "This part of the solution is a rather small amount, but none the less that does help. We can't just leave it to the school district; we have to work together."

The success of the city's funding will be measured by the progress students make, she said, and Teach for America will be required to report back to the council twice a year.

"The information I've received from other states and other school districts, information I've gotten from people in our school district shows how valuable (Teach for America) is," she said. "I think that's very important. There is value in it, but it may turn out, maybe it wasn't as valuable as we thought it was. I think we have to keep very careful records. We can't be subjective in that."

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