Congress takes up expansion of Troops to Teachers

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 7, 2009 

WASHINGTON — Frank McBryde says there are plenty of parallels between serving in the U.S. military and teaching.

"You're not going to become rich, you need loyalty and you need to be dedicated to a task," said McBryde, 54.

After a 23-year career in the Navy and retiring as a senior chief operations specialist, McBryde is now teaching math to sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders in suburban Sacramento, Calif.

The federal government aided in his transition, giving him a $10,000 stipend because he agreed to teach in a school where at least half of the students were poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

McBryde is one of more than 12,000 service members nationwide who've participated in the program since it began in 1994.

Now Congress is considering a huge expansion: Under a pending bill, the an estimated 98 percent of U.S. schools would be eligible to hire troops-turned-teachers.

McBryde, who grew up in Los Angeles and now lives in Antelope, Calif., said he planned to work in business after his military career, but then he decided to switch gears.

"I wanted my next career to mean something," he said.

Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Calif., said the program helps schools by providing them with more highly qualified math and science teachers while giving veterans "the opportunity to serve their country again."

She's one of a handful of members of Congress promoting the legislation, along with Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, Colorado Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet, Republican Rep. Tom Petri of Wisconsin and Democratic Rep. Joe Courtney of Connecticut.

"Right now our country is grappling with an aging teaching workforce," Matsui said. "And we have a definite need for qualified schoolteachers, particularly those that can provide mentorship and leadership."

Petri said the Education Department in recent years has restricted the eligibility of schools far beyond what Congress ever intended. As an example, he said, only 13 of the 420 school districts in Wisconsin qualified earlier this year.

Bennet said the program needed to be expanded to attract younger troops, noting the current law requires six years of military service for eligibility.

"Unfortunately, many men and women coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan are ineligible to participate in the current program because of burdensome restrictions," he said.

"What we should be saying is, if you want to continue to serve your country, if you want to make a difference in a student's life, there is a place for you in the classroom," Bennet added.

The program began when J.H. "Jack" Hexter, a history professor at Washington University in St. Louis, saw two problems that he wanted to fix: helping inner-city schools find qualified teachers, and helping large numbers of retired military personnel find jobs after their early retirements.

Hexter eventually convinced former Missouri Republican Sen. John Danforth to try to get funding his proposed Troops to Teachers program. And Danforth was successful in getting money included in the 1993 defense spending bill. In 2008 and 2009, Congress appropriated $14 million for the program each year. The new bill would authorize the program for as much as $50 million a year, Matsui said. Since 2002, Congress has spent more than $134 million on the program.

As currently designed, the program offers troops up to $5,000 to help them pay for their education. And then they can get a $10,000 bonus by agreeing to teach in a school with a majority of low-income students for at least three years.

The program has strong backing from the Obama administration. At a hearing of the House Education and Labor Committee in May, Education Secretary Arne Duncan promised to "push very hard" to sell the program.

"I'm a huge fan of Troops to Teachers," Duncan said. "I think it's a phenomenal pool of talent."

McCain said the challenge will be to get the House of Representatives and the Senate to consider the bill during a very busy time, with Congress nearing votes on health care and soon to tackle climate-change legislation, among other things.

He's not expecting much opposition when it comes time to vote, however.

"There may be opponents of this legislation out there," McCain said. "I just don't know who they are."

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