Las Vegas council OKs $62,500 to help fund downtown teachers

Teach for America, a group that enthralls education reformers and rankles some traditionalists, will provide an influx of teachers to downtown Las Vegas schools with an assist from the City Council.

The council voted unanimously Wednesday for a proposal to spend $62,500 to help fund 25 teachers for schools in and around downtown.

In a separate vote, the council approved another $35,000 for a site coordinator at Bell Elementary School who would work with the city on Downtown Achieves and Literacy Liftoff programs.

Both programs are aimed at city efforts to increase reading proficiency and high school graduation rates despite the fact that education policy is largely set and funded through state government.

Still, with Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh’s privately funded Downtown Project pumping $50 million into education and Mayor Carolyn Goodman’s experience as founder of the private Meadows School, there is greater interest lately at City Hall in improving Nevada’s typically dismal education outcomes.

“We actually share the city’s vision; we are excited the city’s leadership has decided to focus on education,” said Adam Johnson, director of Growth and Development Partnerships at Teach for America.

Teach for America, which will pay for much of the Las Vegas teaching program, hires fresh college graduates from various disciplines and provides them with teacher training, then seeks to place them in challenging urban and rural schools around the country. The participants are asked to remain with the program for two years.

Teach for America has had more than 30,000 participants teach about 3 million children nationally. The organization had about $270 million in revenue in 2011, with most of the money coming from private donations in addition to government grants and fees.

It has been praised by private-sector education reform advocates, such as Hsieh, and politicians looking to burnish reputations as education reformers, such as Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval, who tried to include $2 million for Teach for America in his latest state budget.

Critics, however, question the use of public funding for the organization, given its vast private resources. They also decry the tendency to view it as a solution for underperforming schools, often populated with low-income students, which they say can undermine efforts to provide more stable and universal solutions for education problems.

In Nevada that means offering support for a proposed business tax that could raise as much as $800 million for primary public education, according to Ruben Murillo, president of the Nevada State Education Association, which represents teachers unions in Nevada.

Murillo said the proposed tax, which will be on the ballot next year, wouldn’t be necessary if the state Legislature and governor would approve budgets with more education funding.

“If the state of Nevada did what they should have done a long time ago ... then we wouldn’t have to go to the Las Vegas City Council or even private organizations to help supplement education funding,” he said.

Councilwoman Lois Tarkanian said she was satisfied the city-sponsored efforts would be tied to accountability measures to ensure they generate results that justify the spending.

Contact reporter Benjamin Spillman at bspillman@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0285 .