(Updated: October 28, 2013 at 11:44 AM CT)
When Congress acted earlier this month to end the government shutdown, lawmakers also extended a provision that advocates contend has negative implications for students with disabilities.
Tucked inside the legislation that brought the government back to life was a provision allowing teachers to be dubbed “highly qualified” even if they are still working on their certification through an alternative training program like Teach for America.
For years, disability and special education advocates have worked to end the practice, arguing that it’s disingenuous to confer such a title on rookie educators who are still learning their trade. Advocates have long argued that low-income students, minorities and those in special education are disproportionately affected by the policy because they are most frequently assigned less experienced teachers.
“What we can’t do is put someone in a classroom who’s only had a few hours of training and call them ‘highly qualified,'” said Kim Hymes, senior director of policy and advocacy at the Council for Exceptional Children, one of more than 90 civil rights, disability and education groups that oppose the practice.
“What that does for parents and the community is it coveys a sense of knowledge that’s simply not there,” she said.
The debate dates back to the early days of No Child Left Behind when regulators determined that teachers could be called “highly qualified” from the time they began an alternative training program.
But in 2010 a federal court ruling indicating that Congress intended “highly qualified” to only apply to teachers who had completed their training brought the policy to an end.
Subsequently, late that year, Congress intervened with a law allowing the initial regulation to stand. Since that time, lawmakers have extended their exception for rookie educators one year at a time.
With the legislation passed this month, however, the allowance for teachers in training was extended for two years through the 2015-2016 school year.
It’s unclear how many students with disabilities are impacted by the policy, Hymes said. Congress has asked the U.S. Department of Education to study how many kids are educated by teachers in training but a report on the issue is not expected until next fall.
However, given the frequent teacher shortages in special education, Hymes said the field is particularly reliant on individuals who are trained in alternative programs.
“We don’t disagree that there is a need for alternate-route programs,” Hymes said. “What our issue is, is that we do not believe that individuals who have not completed their preparation should be called ‘highly qualified.'”
Allison Preiss, a spokeswoman for U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who chairs the Senate’s education committee, told Disability Scoop that Harkin “worked with members on both sides of the aisle to include the teacher qualification language” in the bill, calling it a “short-term fix” while Congress works on more long-term updates to federal education law.