New York Times Editorial
November 13, 2009 -- Education Secretary Arne Duncan has been widely held in high regard since he was appointed in January, but no honeymoon lasts forever. Mr. Duncan’s came to an abrupt end earlier this week when he issued long-awaited rules that the states must follow to apply for his $4.3 billion discretionary fund, known as the Race to the Top Fund, and the second round of federal financing under the $49 billion federal stimulus package known as the state fiscal stabilization fund.
The rules for the Race to the Top Fund, which is designed to reward states that embrace reform and bypass those that do not, are generally sound and have been greeted with enthusiasm. But some school reform groups and some in Congress have reacted with dismay to the part of the stabilization fund that was supposed to require the states to end the longstanding and reprehensible practice of shunting unprepared and unqualified teachers into the schools serving the poorest students.
The No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 was clear in requiring states to remedy situations in which high poverty schools were being disproportionately staffed by teachers who were inexperienced, unqualified or teaching in fields that they had not majored in.
The country would be much further along on the reform trail had the Bush administration followed the law. Instead, it allowed the states to define away the problem by re-labeling the existing, inadequate teacher corps as “highly qualified.”
Congress tried to discourage the use of inexperienced and unqualified teachers a second time when it passed the stimulus act. Education advocates inside and outside Congress expected that the stabilization fund application would be explicit and ambitious on the issue of teacher equity. They were understandably disappointed to find the issue couched, once again, in euphemistic language that asks the states to describe in vague terms whether the teacher corps is “highly qualified.”
The Congressional Black Caucus is unhappy with this approach. The Education Trust, an influential research group that deals with reform issues, accused Mr. Duncan of papering over a serious problem and squandering an opportunity to force “truth-telling about unfair teacher-assignment practices.”
The language in the application reflects timidity at the White House and in Congress, where some voices wanted to delay the fight over this issue until next year when Congress will likely reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The language also reflects the sometimes excessive influence of boutique alternative certification programs, which want to keep doors open for teachers who might be shut out under traditional criteria.
But the facts on the ground remain inescapably clear. Children in poor neighborhoods will continue to be poorly served at school until Congress pushes the states to provide them with better, more effective teachers.