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Stopgap Spending Measure Deals With Highly Qualified Teacher Issue

There's a big budget showdown brewing in Washington, but school districts have at least some funding information to go on now, at least for the next six months, thanks to a rare bipartisan bill that passed the House of Representatives last week and is expected to gain approval in the Senate.

Last week, with very little fanfare or drama, the U.S. House of Representatives approved a bill to extend funding for almost every federal agency until March 27, 2013, well after the presidential election. There's actually a very small increase for the Education Department, about $417 million, according to the Committee for Education Funding, a nonprofit organization in Washington. Most programs will be funded at current levels. Of course, if "sequestration" kicks in the money could be cut by about 8 percent, but most school districts wouldn't feel the squeeze until next summer. More on that very complicated issue here here.

The continuing resolution also sort of settles, for now, the sticky question of whether Congress should continue to allow teachers participating in alternative-certification programs to be considered "highly qualified." It would allow educators participating in those programs to count as "highly qualified" for an additional year—through the 2013-14 school year.

Some quick background: Under the now-very-outdated but still-not-reauthorized No Child Left Behind Act, teachers are supposed to be highly qualified, meaning they have a degree in the subject they're teaching, plus state certification. But the law was unclear as to whether teachers currently in alternative-route programs should count. In writing regulations for NCLB, the Bush administration said essentially, yes, teachers can be considered highly qualified if they are in a recognized alternative-route program.

But then, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled against the regulation. So, in 2010, Congress decided to insert some language into an unrelated spending bill, allowing teachers in alternative-certification to be considered highly qualified for another couple of years, until the end of this school year, the 2012-13 school year Lawmakers assumed that they would deal with the issue in a more permanent way during reauthorization. But of course, Congress hasn't gotten its act together to pass a renewal bill yet, and the temporary provision is about to expire.

There was some major back-and-forth this summer between proponents of alternative-certification programs who wanted to see the provision extended, as well as other folks, including teachers' unions, colleges of teacher education, and groups who represent students in special education, rural students, and other disadvantaged children. Those organizations worried that the kids they represent are being disproportionately taught by alternatively certified teachers.

In the final deal, worked out between both chambers, the provision was extended only for one year, not the two years that lawmakers on the House appropriations committee initially sought. And the bill calls for the Education Department to report on just how many disadvantaged kids, students in special education, rural students, and English-language learners are served by teachers who are considered highly qualified because they are participating in an alternative-certification programs.

Groups that were initially asking Congress not to extend the provision are glad to see the requirement for the report, which they hope will help inform lawmakers when it comes time to renew the NCLB law.

"I'm pleased that many of the people we dealt with on both sides of the aisle [understand] that we make the best decisions when we have the most complete information. This is a data point that's missing," said Lindsay Jones, the senior director of policy and advocacy at the Council for Exceptional Children, which advocates for students in special education and gifted children.

The report, which is due to lawmakers by Dec. 31, 2013, will rely on information that school districts are already expected to release to the feds.

For their part, alternative-certification programs are happy with the extension.

"We're pleased that Congress has again reaffirmed the current law by extending the definition of a 'highly qualified teacher' so it will continue to include teachers enrolled in high-quality alternative-certification programs," said Carrie James Rankin, a spokeswoman for Teach for America, in an email. TFA is one of the groups that sent lawmakers a letter earlier this year on the issue. "Highly selective alternative-certification programs are an effective source of teachers, and many of these educators spend their careers working to ensure all kids have access to an excellent education."

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