Teach for America proposal gets opposition

By Ashley Nix and Melanie Posey

BIRMINGHAM, (WBRC) - Does the Birmingham school system have enough money to start a new program for new teachers? Superintendent Dr. Craig Witherspoon is proposing a plan he says will increase the quality of education, but it comes at a cost. Not to mention these are recent graduates who will train "as" they teach.  So is it worth it?

The program called "Teach for America" is being used in a number of systems across the country.  According to Dr. Witherspoon it's been used in rural and urban areas and has a proven track record that it works.

Witherspoon says the money is worth it.  If voted on, the district would pay the salaries of teachers and pay an additional $5,000 a year per teacher for the program.  These teachers are recent college graduates, most of whom will train as they go.  Witherspoon says they're trained by "Teach for America" to be highly energetic and solution oriented.  The goal is to make a difference in low performing schools.  He says in the financial crunch the district is in, the money can be found.

"We are confident we can find the funds..we are flexible in terms of the number.  We haven't decided upon a certain number of teachers.  We're confident even through the budget and some of the financial issues we have, were able to identify the funds to bring this here."

But the plan is getting opposition from the Alabama Education Association.  Lance Hyphen, a spokesperson for the Birmingham AEA says the teacher's union agrees with Witherspoon in that the system needs to make improvements.  But he says using "Teach For America" teachers is not the way to do that.

"Birmingham can't afford that. We're $30 million in the hole and paying an additional $5,000 per teacher unit for an inexperienced college kid to come in and teach is not a good way to start," Hyche says. "We also think displacing what could be a highly-qualified, non-tenured teacher to make room for these kids is not a good idea either, and we oppose it."

Witherspoon says no cuts will be made because of the Teach for America program, if it passes.  But he says, cuts will be made--cuts the system has been talking about for a number of months to improve the district as a whole.

"Are those dollars being spent correctly? Are we getting a return and quite frankly, in some instances, no.  We've got to look at what we're doing and if we can put a quality teacher in front of students for a year or two, that's worth that investment, I would consider."

As for the costs, it depends on how many teachers and how long they stay. The board will take up the issues at its meeting Tuesday.

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