U.S. appeals court sides with CA on “highly qualified” challenge

The media has been abuzz lately about calls from President Barack Obama and U.S Education Secretary Arne Duncan challenging states to more closely tie teacher evaluations to student performance and their offer of financial reward to those that comply.

In a case with real implications for Californias bid for some of those dollars the federal Race to the Top competition the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals dismissed a lawsuit claiming that California violated the No Child Left Behind Act by lowering standards for teachers in low-income districts.

According to federal law, every student has the right to receive instruction in core subjects from a highly qualified teacher. NCLB defines the phrase, in part, as a teacher who holds appropriate credentials.

But the U.S Department of Education issued regulations in 2002, that said highly qualified extends to alternate pathways teachers, or non-credentialed interns gaining field experience who are on track to having their teaching credential in two years.

Critics charge that teachers on those alternate pathways tend to be concentrated in low-income settings.

Civil Rights attorneys originally brought the case in 2007 arguing that California was not following its own standards by allowing a disproportionate amount of novices to teach in low-income areas. The suit claimed that California schools were shirking federal law that mandates an equitable distribution of qualified teachers.

The appeals court dismissed the case because plaintiffs had no standing to bring the challenge. But judges also said that states had some rights to define certification standards for teachers.

The problem here is that because the meaning of full certification is a matter of state law, California could still determine, as it has already, that teachers participating in alternative routes to certification were highly qualified even if the federal regulation was declared void, said Judge Dorothy Nelson in a statement.

Attorneys from Public Advocates said that indeed the court had agreed with them, but could not rule against the state on a technicality.

It makes no sense to say the state can keep a regulation on its books even after plaintiffs have established that the only reason for it a controlling federal regulation has been shown to be unlawful, said attorney Jeff Simes.

The issue is important to California officials because under the federal stimulus program, public school officials are required to show progress in ensuring that highly-qualified teachers are fairly distributed across the state. California already faced some skepticism that low-income schools were not already employing more than their fair share of inexperienced teachers.