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“The NEH has succeeded in making ideas and culture more accessible in all 50 states,” the petition said. “We, the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania, implore Congress to save the National Endowment for the Humanities.”

Credit: File Photo

Penn lost a contract to train new Philadelphia school teachers to an institution not accredited to award master’s degrees in Pennsylvania earlier this month.

In a three to one vote, the School Reform Commission members passed over Penn, as well as Temple University, Drexel University and New York University, for the Relay Graduate School of Education — an organization founded by three charter school companies in 2007 that is not affiliated with a larger college or university.

Relay is a stand-alone graduate school of education that prepares teachers while they work full-time in classrooms. It is similar to programs like Teach for America, but instead of teachers completing coursework at existing institutions, Relay provides the courses needed for certification itself.

With Relay, student teachers will participate in a two-year residency program in a classroom within the School District of Philadelphia. Afterward, the teachers will become certified in Pennsylvania but receive their master’s degree in another state where Relay is accredited.

In an email, SRC member and Temple administrator Christopher McGinley, who received a Ph.D. in Education from Penn in 2008, expressed confusion over the ultimate decision to choose Relay. As the dissenting vote, he could not explain “why the [other SRC members] voted in favor of the contract with an unaccredited institution.”

Supporters note that under Relay’s offer, tuition would be covered entirely by the $7,500 per student teacher that the School District of Philadelphia has agreed to contribute, resulting in no out-of-pockets costs for the residents. 

In comparison, a spokesperson for the School District of Philadelphia said in an email that competing offers, like that of the Penn Graduate School of Education would have cost residents $23,000 out-of-pocket. Relay’s lower costs allow it to recruit a larger and more diverse pool of applicants, which is a priority for the Philadelphia school system.

SRC member, 1990 College graduate and 1996 Law School graduate Farah Jimenez explained how Relay’s broad, affordable appeal was crucial to the SRC’s decision. She said having more minority educators in the Philadelphia workforce was the main goal.

“What the district is interested in is having more certified teachers of color,” Jimenez told The Daily Pennsylvanian. “And if you can become an accredited teacher at $8,000 a year versus $30,000 a year, it opens a larger pool of potential candidates.”

Jimenez added that the decision was made to address what she called “a universal teacher shortage across the United States.”

Philadelphia, in particular, has struggled with education vacancies recently. At the end of the 2015-2016 school year there were 132 unfilled teaching positions, Newsworks reported. At the beginning of the current school year, there were 84 unfilled positions.

Still, critics are concerned that well-regarded schools like the GSE were overlooked because of costs, especially since the alternative fails to meet several state master’s degree standards, including faculty quality.

Penn GSE professor Janine Remillard, who focuses on teacher education, said teachers benefit from the intensive training and classroom experience that comes from pursuing a master’s degree at traditional institutions of higher education.

“I’m actually just doing a presentation on Finland next week, and all of their teachers have master’s degrees. They get introduced into research, they have extensive teacher preparation and it really shows,” Remillard said. “So I think investing in high-quality teacher education and doing it at the master’s level is probably the better way to go.”

But Remillard understands the need for a larger and more diverse faculty. She recognizes there is a shortage of educators both locally and nationally, and that funding for teacher education is scarce.

“In the United States, the number of teachers that we need to prepare is enormous,” Remillard added. “So it’s a little bit difficult to figure out how to get people to invest in really preparing teachers well.”