Teaching Fellows divides state legislature

UNC sophomore Jean-Luc Rivera discovered a knack for teaching early in his high school career, when he tutored classmates in Advanced Placement biology.

Rivera knew he needed a scholarship to afford college, and the N.C. Teaching Fellows program — and its annual $6,500 grant — enabled him to come to UNC.

But Rivera and the nearly three dozen Teaching Fellows in UNC’s class of 2015 will be the last, if the N.C. General Assembly continues phasing out the program’s funding in the state’s two-year budget.

“I would’ve had a much harder time paying for college without my Teaching Fellows scholarship,” Rivera said.

The N.C. Senate’s budget eliminates funding for Teaching Fellows by fiscal year 2014-15 — instead allocating $5.1 million next year to Teach for America, which recruits college graduates to teach for two years in low-performing schools.

The N.C. House of Representatives, meanwhile, includes $3 million in its budget to reinstate Teaching Fellows and $500,000 for Teach for America.

For 25 years, Teaching Fellows gave 500 scholarships each year to high school students in the state, who in return agreed to teach in N.C. public schools for at least four years after graduation.

Rep. Hugh Blackwell (R-Burke) said research suggests Teaching Fellows are more successful in the classroom than other North Carolina college graduates.

“It seemed we ought to encourage them, rather than get rid of them,” Blackwell said.

Bob Luebke, an analyst at the conservative Civitas Institute, said the program was one of several nonprofits that Republicans evaluated after gaining a majority in the legislature in 2010.

He said legislators have to address any overlap among initiatives like Teaching Fellows and Teach for America when finances are tight.

“Does the state have an interest in having good teachers? Yes,” Luebke said. “But I thought (the level of investment) was excessive.”

He said expanding Teach for America could help offset the state’s maldistribution of teachers by placing quality educators in low-income schools.

Robyn Fehrman, executive director of Teach for America in Eastern North Carolina, said the Senate’s funds would grow the state’s program to a core of more than 600 teachers.

A 2012 study by the Carolina Institute for Public Policy found that Teach for America teachers were exceptionally effective, and their students scored best on standardized tests. Teaching Fellows were second best, though still ahead of other teachers who graduated from North Carolina universities and had less than five years of experience.

But Gary Henry, who helped conduct the study, said the two programs fill different niches in the state.

He said Teach for America teachers are unlikely to stay in North Carolina after their two years are up — but about 75 percent of Teaching Fellows remain more than four years after graduation.

“The problem in this either-or solution is that the TFA teachers … leave at such high rates that we’re constantly replacing them,” he said.

About 4,000 Teaching Fellows currently work in 114 of North Carolina’s 115 public school districts.

Elon University was the only institution in the state to offer its Teaching Fellows scholarship last year — and Henry said private money might be the program’s only sustainable future.

Matt Ellinwood, an analyst with the N.C. Justice Center, said even the House’s budget is a temporary Band-Aid for Teaching Fellows because the state funds are nonrecurring.

The General Assembly passed a continuing resolution this week to avoid a government shutdown, since the budget likely won’t be finalized by June 30. Blackwell said the Teaching Fellows-Teach for America debate will continue in conference committee.

“I’d like to encourage and maintain both programs.”

Contact the desk editor at state@dailytarheel.com.

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