Ohio legislature paves the way for Teach For America

Last week marked history for the Buckeye State and its low-income children, as well as for the dozens if not hundreds of reform advocates who’ve been fighting to ensure that Teach For America finally grows roots in Ohio.

Legislation in the Ohio House (HB 21) and Senate (SB 81) passed last Tuesday and will pave the way for a Teach For America site – specifically, by allowing TFA to place teachers across grades and subjects and not just in shortage areas – and also makes it easier for alums of the program to get certified here to teach. (Highly effective teachers like Abbey Kinson and Jenna Davis – whose testimonies to the Ohio House Education Committee were remarkable – will no longer have to fight tooth and nail to get certified.)

The House passed HB 21 by a 64-32 vote margin, with seven Democrats crossing the aisle to support it. Kudos to Reps. Ted Celeste, John Barnes, Bill Patmon, Vernon Sykes, Armond Budish, Connie Pillich and Matt Szollosi for joining Democrats across the country – including President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan – in supporting the program.

In the Senate, the bill was amended slightly so as to require Teach For America to partner with a local university (which is required in many other TFA states but which adds undo requirements to the program). It passed by a margin of 25-8. Sens. Nina Turner, Jason Wilson, and Eric Kearney crossed the aisle in support of the bill.

Despite the legislation passing by ample margins in both chambers (members of the GOP, Gov. John Kasich included, have been ardent supporters of the program), there was heated debate on the floor about the merits of the program. Lawmakers managed to disparage it from multiple angles, arguing that TFA’s teachers think they can “save inner city children” (the classic “white missionary” euphemism); that they are dramatically underprepared and do damage to poor children; that it’s an “experiment” to which we should not expose our children (never mind that it’s in 31 states – not exactly experimental status); that they’ll steal jobs from our own teacher graduates (this sentiment illustrates the very point TFA is trying to make – that education should be about students and not about giving adults jobs). To read more about the rhetorical bullets fired last week against TFA, read here and here.

More important than re-hashing these misinformed arguments, however, is thinking about a broader and more exciting question: what does Teach For America’s impending presence mean for the Buckeye State?

For starters, a TFA-Ohio site means that one or more of our cities/rural areas will immediately begin attracting teachers who are dedicated to ending educational inequity. Top college graduates with a commitment to improving student performance in low-income communities (and who will have legitimate training/mentoring through TFA and via Ohio’s requirements) will matriculate into Ohio’s high-poverty classrooms at higher rates. This can only be good for our students and schools, especially those most in need of innovation, enthusiasm, and a culture of “no excuses.”

Second, as research on the program shows, TFA will have a longer term impact on the state. Many of the program’s teachers will continue teaching in Ohio’s low-income classrooms over the long haul, while many others may go on to assume leadership roles as principals and superintendents. These leaders will be grounded in a common conviction shared by the broader TFA community: All children, no matter their background, can learn to high levels and it is our responsibility to ensure that they do. The culture of high expectations in our schools will be strengthened by the presence of TFA teachers.

Third, Ohio will stem part of its brain drain of top college students, especially among those committed to K-12 education. With 1800 college students applying to Teach For America this year, and 300 currently teaching in the program, not a single one of them could work in Ohio until the passage of this legislation. As soon as TFA-Ohio launches its site, college students can begin selecting an Ohio community as their preferred site. By drawing in young people committed to educational equity – and keeping folks here – Ohio is more likely to develop a concentrated community of change agents driving bold reforms in K-12 education.

Teach For America’s teachers, leaders, and alums (with an easier pathway to certification) will fight to ensure that every child in this state has access to an excellent education. For those students whose circumstances put them on a trajectory where high school dropout, unemployment, prison, or worse is statistically more likely than earning a college degree, the legislation passed last week is a milestone indeed.

Jamie Davies O'Leary
Jamie Davies O'Leary is a Senior Ohio Policy Analyst at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. She works with a coalition of high-performing Ohio charter school networks, facilitating their advocacy efforts and providing research and technical assistance.