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Talking AmeriCorps Funding With Teach For America CEO Elisa Villanueva Beard
There was big news last week with the release of the president’s budget proposal, which included funding cuts for the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), the federal agency that administers AmeriCorps. To learn more about the proposed cuts and the potential impact on incoming Teach For America corps members, the Top Stories editorial team sat down with Teach For America CEO Elisa Villanueva Beard (Phoenix ’98). Elisa shared more with us about the budget process, what Teach For America is doing to protect AmeriCorps funding, and the most effective ways to show support for AmeriCorps.
Q: What’s at stake here—what does the president’s budget proposal actually mean?
I’m so glad you asked about this, because both the budget process and the history of AmeriCorps funding in that process are important for everyone to understand.
First of all, the president’s proposed budget is just the beginning of the process. Ultimately, all spending determinations are made by Congress, and the budget will likely not be finalized until this fall.
Second, the federal government’s investment in AmeriCorps has become something of an annual debate. There have been several proposals to cut AmeriCorps funding in recent years. Fortunately, with the strength and diversity of the coalition that supports AmeriCorps, Congress has ultimately rejected large-scale cuts. We’re committed to ensuring that funding for AmeriCorps continues—it is just too important to Teach For America corps members, alumni, and communities, and to our mission.
We’re veterans of this debate and are already fiercely advocating to maintain AmeriCorps funding. It’s also important to note that we’re far from alone in this advocacy. We’re joined by many diverse organizations and leaders from both political parties, who are fighting relentlessly on behalf of AmeriCorps.
And the vast majority of our country—across the range of political parties, race, gender, ethnicity, and age—agrees. There was a survey in December 2016 that found 80 percent of voters agree that we should continue federal investment in national service programs.
Q: Why do you think AmeriCorps matters—not just to Teach For America, but in general?
AmeriCorps mobilizes hundreds of thousands of people every year to dedicate their time to making our country a better and more equitable place to live. Programs that everyone knows and loves, like Habitat for Humanity, Big Brothers, Big Sisters, and City Year, have more in common with Teach For America than our missions of service: We’re connected as partners of AmeriCorps.
I also think that AmeriCorps represents a vision of our country at its very best. There was such idealism at the root of its founding in the 1990s, and that continues in the coalition that has sustained it throughout all the years since.
Q: How has the AmeriCorps partnership benefited Teach For America?
Our partnership with AmeriCorps has helped us in many ways. One important way is expanding the reach and impact of our work through the AmeriCorps Education Award, which is used to pay for future educational expenses or to pay down qualified student loan debt and provides forbearance on past student loans during the time of service.
For corps members who are eligible for enrollment in AmeriCorps and qualify for this award, the transition to the corps becomes more financially feasible. This helps us to recruit and develop a diverse group of future leaders. It’s critical to many alumni and corps members in their ability to pay off student loans and earn masters degrees and teaching certifications.
These awards enable people from all walks of life to work toward making our communities stronger.
I do want to note that while we benefit greatly from our partnership with AmeriCorps, the financial stability of Teach For America is not threatened by the proposed cuts. Like all strong nonprofits, we have a diverse funding base.
Q: What does the president’s budget mean for incoming corps members?
Well, as I mentioned before, we’re only at the beginning of what will be a long process in Congress, and the budget may not be finalized until the fall at the earliest. But I think it’s important for incoming corps members to know that no matter what happens with the budget, their salaries and employer-related benefits will not be impacted—those are determined by their individual school or district, and are not connected to AmeriCorps funding. And Teach For America financial aid will also remain unaffected.
Q: What can incoming corps members do to show their support for AmeriCorps?
Current corps members who are AmeriCorps members can be politically active and share their thoughts, but under the terms of their AmeriCorps service, they’re prohibited from participating in direct lobbying on AmeriCorps time. There are no such restrictions on incoming corps members. I strongly encourage incoming corps members to join alongside Teach For America alumni in making their voices heard in defense of AmeriCorps. There are four specific things incoming corps members can do:
- Visit Voices for National Service to automatically connect with their members of Congress. (Ed: This link walks you through the call process, step-by-step.)
- Send a written note urging their members of Congress to protect AmeriCorps.
- Use this template to email a letter opposing elimination of AmeriCorps to each member of their congressional delegation. Find contact information for members of Congress at Congress.gov.
- Use social media to share, like, or retweet Teach For America's post and my own post supporting AmeriCorps.
They will be part of a formidable coalition across our country who believe what I know to be true: leadership in service of expanding opportunity matters, today more than ever.