Shelby County’s merged school board voted 5-2 to keep its contract with Teach For America at last night’s board meeting, despite concerns about the program’s recruitment fee.

The district will pay $1.9 million to Teach For America, or TFA, over the next two years to place a cohort of up to 125 teachers. That represents a $5,000 per teacher, per year fee to the organization, which goes to TFA, not to individual teachers recruited.

Superintendent Dorsey E. Hopson II introduced the vote by saying that he was concerned about TFA teachers’ retention. He said that 21 percent of TFA teachers remain in the district after their second year, as compared to 71 percent of teachers recruited directly by the district. 

He told board members he still recommended voting for the contract because it is funded by the Gates Foundation, which gave the district a $90 million grant to support teacher effectiveness initiatives in the district, and because national studies suggest that TFA teachers are effective.

What makes me comfortable with the gap [in retention between TFA and regularly-recruited teachers] is that it’s being funded by Gates,” Hopson said. 

Board member David Pickler criticized that logic. “Is it your understanding that we’re required to have this under Gates?” Pickler asked. “If we’re not required, and the only reason you’re comfortable is because it’s funded by Gates…the mere fact that its paid for doesn’t mean that’s the highest and best use of funds.”

Pickler raised concerns about the financial sustainability of the program. “If, in fact, we’re bringing teachers in here for only two years, we’re in a situation where, when the Gates money is gone, we’re dealing with teachers that have to be replaced over and above normal recruiting,”

Board member David Reaves said that he did not question that alternate certification programs, which grant teaching licenses to teachers who have not completed traditional education programs, have value, “but when you go to an outsource model, you have two years, invest a lot, then there’s a brain drain.”

Pickler and Reaves also questioned the performance of TFA teachers in the district.

Hopson said that he had not specifically run data on the performance of TFA teachers in the Shelby County school system. District officials referred board members to a recent report from the Tennessee Higher Education Commission suggesting that TFA teachers in the state help improve students’ test scores.

Laura Link, the district’s assistant superintendent of teaching, learning, and professional development, said that the district did not receive enough certified applicants to fill spots in high-needs subjects. In math, she said, the district had 81 vacancies and 20 certified applicants. In middle school, there were 160 vacancies and 75 certified candidates in the pool. 

Board members raised the question of using pay to incentivize teachers to teach in high-needs schools. Board member Reaves asked if the district had tried using that $5,000 recruiting fee to offer signing bonuses to teachers. He was informed that the district had not.

He then asked if candidates to teach in the district’s Innovation Zone, a group of 13 low-performing schools that receive extra funds and certain school-level autonomies in an effort to help improve the schools, receive a financial incentive to teach in those schools. Bradley Leon, the district’s chief innovation officer, said that they do, though teachers might have varied motivations for working in those schools.

Superintendent Hopson said, “We will be asking the board to allow us to pay incentives to teach in places that are low-performing.” But he said that some teachers had informed him that “you couldn’t pay us enough to go” to some low-performing schools, due to safety concerns and working conditions.

Board members Teresa Jones said that focusing on teacher retention and satisfaction should be a priority. Five teachers in the Shelby County school system spoke earlier in the meeting about their dissatisfaction with several aspects of their working conditions, including a lack of raises, lack of pay for advanced education, and a feeling that their voices are not heard by policymakers.

“Are we making this is an attractive district over and above salary?” Jones asked. “If you address some of these complaints, retention won’t be an issue.”

Hopson said, “I have to say, if effective talent is leaving the district at a 70-something percent rate, we have to look at strategies we can use to retain talent.” 

The board approved Teach For America’s contract, with Reaves and Pickler voting against. Pickler raised similar concerns about TFA’s contract at a meeting last week.