Congress Sticks Teach for America Exemption into Late-Night Deal

Close to midnight last night Congress passed legislation to end the government shutdown, but as Valerie Strauss notes this morning in the Washington Post: “Unobtrusively slipped into the debt deal… is a provision about school reform that will make Teach for America very happy.  In language that does not give a hint about its real meaning, the deal extends by two years legislation that allows the phrase ‘highly qualified teachers’ to include students still in teacher training programs—and Teach for America’s recruits who get five weeks of summer training shortly after they have graduated from college, and are then placed in some of America’s neediest schools.”

Strauss continues: “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 Kenneth Zeicher,an education researcher cited by Strauss, “A 2012 study from Stanford University concludes that nationally students of color in low-income schools are 3 to 10 times more likely to have teachers who are uncertified, not fully prepared, or teaching outside their field of preparation than students in predominately white and affluent schools”

What has come to be known as the “Teach for America (TFA) Exemption” has been included in federal continuing budget resolutions since 2010.  The reason the measure continues to be tucked into the federal budget is to avoid transparent public debate. As Alyson Klein notes in Education Week, “The federal government didn’t shut down over the question of whether teachers in alternative-certification programs should be considered “highly qualified”—but the bill to end the budget stalemate addresses the question anyway.”

There has been serious behind-the-scenes debate about this issue, but as with many matters around education, it has happened quietly through letters and advocacy by advocates from organizations on both sides.   Here is a link to a letter from a large coalition of organizations  who have advocated that Congress require all teachers labeled “highly-qualified” to be fully trained and certified.  These are many of the same organizations who have been advocating that federal policy turn away from punishing the public schools and teachers in the poorest communities and instead improve these schools that serve the mass of poor children.  And here is a letter from  organizations that support the TFA exemption; the list of signers is a who’s who of technocratic, corporatized school reformers.

For a fascinating history of TFA’s work to develop a political presence in the Washington political scene, read Anthony Russo’s chapter of a study from the American Enterprise Institute, the October 2012 Future of American Education Project, Left out of No Child Left Behind: Teach for America’s Outsized Influence on Alternative Certification.  Russo paints TFA as politically naive in 2000, when Kevin Huffman (Michelle Rhee’s former husband and now the commissioner of education in Tennessee) joined the organization as general counsel and director of development.  According to Russo, TFA worked hard to develop key friends in the Bush Administration and Congress, friends who included Barbara Bush, John Boehner, Lamar Alexander, Barbara Mikulski, Hillary Clinton, Joe Liebermann, and Evan Bayh.

Ted Kennedy was the dissenter. Russo quotes Jane Oates, a staffer for the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee:  “I think Kennedy was always for the best prepared teacher. The argument was always between getting a really bright, wonderful person for a short time versus getting a really bright, wonderful person for longer.  That was his bigger issue.”

After the bipartisan agreement that produced No Child Left Behind in 2002, advocates for TFA realized their recruits would not qualify as the highly qualified teachers NCLB required to be in place in every school by 2005-2006.  Almost immediately the law was adjusted through the regulation process to declare teachers in alternative certification programs highly qualified.  Senator Kennedy and Representative George Miller called the rules a “loophole” and protested, “It does our children a disservice to call a teacher who does not even have state certification—and may never get it—‘highly qualified.'”

But as we can see again in last night’s deal to end the government shutdown, TFA has now developed the political clout to ensure that the TFA Exemption remains federal law.

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2 thoughts on “Congress Sticks Teach for America Exemption into Late-Night Deal

  1. Pingback: Obama Administration Fails to Require Equal Distribution of Well-Qualified Teachers | janresseger

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