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.
The legislation, which is expected to be approved by both houses of Congress very soon, would allow teachers participating in alternative-certification programs (for example, Teach for America) to be considered "highly qualified" for an additional two years, through the 2015-16 school year.
Some background: Under the still-not-reauthorized No Child Left Behind Act, teachers are supposed to have a degree in the subject they're teaching, plus state certification. But it's always been a big point of contention whether teachers currently in alternative-route programs should count. In writing regulations for the NCLB law, the Bush administration, essentially allowed teachers in a recognized alternative-route program to be considered highly qualified.
But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in San Francisco ruled against the regulation. So, in 2010, Congress—with NCLB reauthorization still moving at a snail's pace—put language into an unrelated spending bill allowing teachers in alternative-certification to be considered highly qualified until the end of this school year. And they extended that provision yet again, for the 2013-14 school year, under yet another unrelated spending bill. More here.
And now, the language is back, this time as part of the agreement to end the shutdown and raise the debt ceiling.
Waiver states—more than 40 at this point—get some flexibility with the highly qualified teacher requirement. They don't have to develop improvement plans if they miss their targets in this area, for instance. But the distinction still matters.
Will everyone be happy about this? Maybe not. Last year, when Congress was contemplating a similar extension, a group of unions, civil rights and disabilities groups, including the Council for Exceptional Children, the National Education Association, the National Center for Learning Disabilities, the American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education, and the NAACP, sent a letter to Capitol Hill saying they would rather not see the provision extended. They're worried that could mean that more low-income students and students in special populations will be taught by folks who aren't certified.
But there are plenty of groups who may be fans of the provision, including Teach for America, the New Teacher Project, Chiefs for Change, the Council of the Great City Schools, and the NewSchools Venture Fund. They sent their own letter to Congress last year asking them to extend the provision. Without the language, they argued, students would lose access to many good teachers.
Where did the language come from? Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate panels that oversee K-12 spending and policy, was a champion, although he worked with folks on both sides of the aisle to get it done, said his spokeswoman, Kate Cyrul Frischmann. Harkin put similiar language into a previous budget bill. The provision is "a short-term fix until Congress can have a long-term conversation about the future of ESEA," Frischmann said.