October 16, 2013; Washington Post, “The Answer Sheet”


Although we’re all relieved that President Obama signed the bill on Thursday to reopen the government and raise the debt limit, there was a small, subtle inclusion that benefits Teach for America.

Under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, all students are supposed to be taught by “highly qualified” teachers, which are defined as having a bachelor’s degree, state certification or licensure, and proof that “they know each subject they teach.” That second provision has come under contention, as Congress introduced legislation that designated “alternative routes to certification,” like those undergone by Teach for America candidates, as satisfying the requirement—even though some such candidates could be described as teachers “still in training.” (This was after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruling in 2010, which went the other way.) Such teachers are often placed in areas “where students are predominantly low-income and minority“ and have recounted stories of being given “inadequate“ preparation for the task at hand. In 2011, more than 50 organizations with an eye toward the public interest signed a letter to President Obama exhorting him not to keep that definition, but to no effect.

Flash forward to current events. On page 20 of the bill signed by the president, there’s a section that reads, “SEC. 145. Subsection (b) of section 163 of Public 5 Law 111-242, as amended, is further amended by striking ’2013-2014’ and inserting ‘2015-2016.’” What this does is extend by two years the effect of H.R. 3082, the measure that Teach For America and other school reformers persuaded legislators to pass a few years ago that altered the “highly qualified” provision to include students still in teacher-training programs. The measure is likely to have a disproportionate effect on low-income students and students of color. From the Post article:

“Under No Child Left Behind, all children are supposed to have highly qualified teachers, school districts are supposed to let parents know which teachers are not highly qualified, and these teachers are supposed to be equitably distributed in schools. They aren’t. It turns out that teachers still in training programs are disproportionately concentrated in schools serving low-income students and students of color, the very children who need the very best the teaching profession has to offer. The inequitable distribution of these teachers also has a disproportionate impact on students with disabilities.”

According to the Washington Post, it was Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), a big Teach For America supporter, who pushed the language into the bill. A statement from his communications director, Kate Cyrul Frischmann, read, “Senator Harkin, in his role as chairman of the education appropriations subcommittee, worked with members on both sides of the aisle to include the teacher qualification language in the CR.”

The past few years have seen widespread concern voiced about Teach for America, but TFA has been virtual Teflon except in some states (Minnesota and Nevada, among others). NPQ is reminded of an article, entitled “Why Programs Get Replicated,” by Peter Frumkin and David Reingold. While focused on two other programs, the political dynamics seem much the same.—Jason Schneiderman