More than 50 advocacy groups are calling on federal officials to crack down on which teachers can be called “highly qualified,” alleging that loose regulations are harming students with disabilities and other minority groups.

In a letter sent to President Barack Obama and congressional leaders late last week, a conglomerate of disability, minority and educational advocacy organizations expressed concern over a recent change in the law allowing teachers to be labeled “highly qualified” even if they are just beginning their training through an alternative program like Teach for America.

The policy “disproportionately impacts our most vulnerable populations: low-income students and students of color, English language learners and students with disabilities who are most often assigned such underprepared teachers,” according to the letter signed by the Council for Exceptional Children, the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, Easter Seals and the National Disability Rights Network, among others.

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What’s more, the groups say that allowing teachers still undergoing training to obtain the “highly qualified” label is disingenuous.

Under regulations initially established for No Child Left Behind, teachers can be called “highly qualified” from the time they begin an alternative training program. But a federal court ruling last fall struck down the policy saying that Congress intended for “highly qualified” to apply to teachers who already completed their training.

In December, however, Congress approved a change in the law to allow the initial regulation to stand.

“There is broad, bipartisan agreement among members of Congress and the Obama administration that it is the intent of Congress for alternative-route teachers to be considered highly qualified,” said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who chairs the Senate’s education committee, in a statement to The Washington Post at the time.

Who is deemed “highly qualified” is significant, advocates say, because schools must publicly disclose which of their teachers do not meet the designation. Moreover, there are limits on how many teachers who are not “highly qualified” can work at specific schools.

Now, the advocacy groups are urging Congress and the White House to reverse course.

“It’s unacceptable that parents aren’t required to be notified when their child’s teacher is not qualified to teach school,” said Mark Halpert, a parent leader with The National Center for Learning Disabilities, which also signed the letter. “We know that the academic needs of children with disabilities cannot be met by someone who is working to become a qualified teacher, but not there yet.”

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