In his expansive presidential education platform, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., lays out commitments to raising teacher pay, expanding teacher-training programs, and addressing the shortage in special education teacher recruitment.
His plan, though critical of many staples of education reform — like the proliferation of charter schools and tying federal funds to standardized tests — steers clear of some other controversial education topics, like Teach For America, the national organization that recruits recent college graduates and places them in public schools for two-year stints.
Sanders has a notable history on this issue, however, in that he stood up to the powerful organization when virtually no one else in Congress would.
While he has said in the past that he is a “strong supporter of programs like Teach For America” and several of his education advisers were alumni of the program, Sanders was also the sole member of the Democratic caucus to take on the group in a 2011 fight about the role noncertified teachers play in the U.S. public school system.
The senator’s fight was rooted in the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, which included a provision that said all students are entitled to “Highly Qualified Teachers” — a goal to ensure all educators were sufficiently prepared before running their own classroom. Under the law, teachers in core subjects were required to have bachelor’s degrees, demonstrate content knowledge, and obtain state teaching certificates or pass state licensing exams.
These rules posed a problem for Teach for America, since its uncredentialed recruits did not meet those standards, but the organization had built its reputation on the idea that its participants were ready to start immediately leading classrooms. Over several years, Teach for America lobbied to have its program participants recognized as “highly qualified” — a proposition that rankled Sanders, as well as a broad coalition of education and civil rights groups. Research showed uncertified teachers worked disproportionately in high-poverty schools, and in some states, were concentrated with English-language learners and students with disabilities.
“When we have highly qualified teachers, we don’t want all of those teachers being in upper-middle-class neighborhoods educating kids to go to Harvard and Yale,” Sanders said in 2011. “We want that, but we also want to make sure that schools that have serious problems, where kids are dropping out, kids have a lot of disabilities, we want to make sure that those schools get their fair share, an equitable distribution of ‘highly qualified’ teachers.”
Sanders ultimately lost the fight — waged at a time when Teach for America not only commanded strong allies in Congress but also had the backing of Barack Obama’s Education Department. While the relevant portion of the law was eliminated in 2015, the episode is worth examining closely as a lesser-known example of Sanders’s willingness to challenge his party and the Washington consensus.
The Sanders campaign declined to comment for this story. Joe Walsh, a spokesperson for Teach for America, told The Intercept over email that “this was an old debate about a law that does not exist anymore … [but] back when this was in place, there was overwhelming bipartisan support, in both two different Administrations and in Congress, for the highly qualified teacher rules. The law back then included those teachers who entered the teaching profession through high-quality alternative preparation programs. We supported that, as did many other education organizations. Our teachers always met the standard of highly qualified teacher.”
Few education groups wield more political power on Capitol Hill than Teach for America. It has been a bipartisan sweetheart for more than two decades, and consequently has landed tens of millions of dollars in federal grants and earmarks. As is common in Washington, the organization’s strength with the federal government has enabled it to shape law in its favor.
Beginning in the mid-2000s, the group was enmeshed in a dispute over teacher credentialing under the No Child Left Behind Act that demonstrated its ability to marshal influence in D.C. Under the law, a school district was permitted to hire educators who did not meet the “highly qualified” bar if there were teacher shortages. Schools that did so, however, had to then inform parents if their child was taught by such a teacher, publicly disclose how many teachers in the entire school were not highly qualified, and develop a plan to reach 100 percent highly qualified teachers. The law also barred schools from disproportionately concentrating inexperienced and uncertified teachers in classrooms with low-income students and students of color. In other words, if noncertified teachers had to be hired, they also had to be fairly distributed across schools.
Teach for America and its allies in the education reform community lobbied the government, and in 2002, the Department of Education issued a regulation that said “highly qualified” teachers could now also include unlicensed teachers for up to three years if they were making progress toward their certification. This effectively resolved the problem for Teach For America, as most program recruits planned to leave the classroom at the end of their assignment anyway.
In 2007, the civil rights law firm Public Advocates filed a suit against the Department of Education over this regulation. In effect, the lawyers argued, it created an exemption that condoned the assignment of novice, inexperienced teachers to students in high-poverty schools, which are disproportionately nonwhite and low-income.
“It seemed pretty simple to us all along that you can’t have a law that requires ‘full state certification’ for teachers to be highly qualified and also say that people who are in the process of getting their certification meet that designation,” said John Affeldt, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs. “Those are two different states of being.”
Affeldt said there was little question as to why the 2002 regulation came about. “Teach for America applied pressure because they saw the original statute as threatening to their model and to the growth of their organization,” he said. “At some point between its founding and the mid-2000s, Teach for America had changed its belief system from ‘Every student needs fully qualified, highly effective teachers’ to ‘Every student needs us.’ TFA’s model depends on being able to concentrate their people in low-income, high-minority schools, and they thought that was a good thing. And if the law incentivized districts to hire other types of teachers ahead of TFA, well, they didn’t want that. They wanted to be seen on the same level, and some in leadership truly believe that TFA’s teachers-in-training are as good or even better qualified than certified teachers who might apply.”
“Teach For America had changed its belief system from ‘Every student needs fully-qualified, highly effective teachers’ to ‘Every student needs us.’”
Teach for America and its education allies fought back against the 2007 lawsuit. In November 2008, Teach for America lawyers submitted an amicus brief arguing that overturning the regulation would “have devastating consequences for our nation’s poorest and most at-risk students.” (The lead counsel was Jenner & Block attorney, Donald Verrelli, who would go on to become solicitor general in the Obama administration.) The brief made a number of unfounded claims, like that school districts could be forced to fire tens of thousands of teachers-in-training and replace them with substitutes. “Whatever Appellant’s motives, the relief they seek would gravely harm the public school students most in need of assistance,” the lawyers argued.
In a response brief, Affeldt and his colleagues argued that “TFA’s illogical doomsday scenario” will not come to pass if the plaintiffs prevail, as school districts will still have the right to hire noncertified teachers. They “will simply have to be reported—accurately—as non-‘highly qualified,’” the lawyers wrote. “And rather than artificially papering over the shortage, states and districts will have to make good faith efforts to provide 100% of students with teachers who are fully-prepared and to distribute equitably teachers who are not.”
While Teach for America and the defendants tried to cast the lawsuit as a referendum on alternative teacher certification programs, the judges recognized that was not what was going on, and in September 2010, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the regulation, finding that it conflicted with the requirements laid out in No Child Left Behind.
Rebuffed by the courts, Teach for America instead turned to Congress, setting up a battle between the group and a vast majority of Democrats on one side, and Sanders on the other.
In December 2010, in the lame-duck session of the Democratic-controlled Congress, lawmakers inserted a rider into an unrelated spending bill that effectively nullified the Ninth Circuit ruling for at least another 2 1/2 years. Congress did this with no public debate, and legislators later claimed they were trying to prevent schools from facing major disruptions. “It has now become more important to maintain the status quo of using poor and minority schools as the training grounds for interns than enforcing teacher equity as NCLB called for and as parents are demanding,” Affeldt argued at the time.
Civil rights groups were furious about the shady rider, and in response launched the Coalition for Teaching Quality, representing more than 80 local, state, and national civil rights, disability rights, and education groups. Their mission was to get it overturned.
Jane West, an education consultant and one of the leaders of the coalition, approached Sanders, who sat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions committee, seeking his help.
“We all knew Jessica Cardichon” — Sanders’s education counsel — “who everyone thought was fabulously and eminently thoughtful and reasonable, and we thought that Bernie Sanders was one of the few Democrats on the education committee who didn’t go around waving the flag for Teach for America,” West said. “So for that reason, we thought that would be the right office to approach.”
Cardichon herself was a Teach for America alumni, as was Sanders’s subsequent education staffer, Michael DiNapoli Jr., who worked for Sanders between November 2015 and June 2017. Both Cardichon and DiNapoli Jr. now work at the Learning Policy Institute, an education think tank.
They explained how their experiences in Teach for America helped inform their ideas about improving teacher quality, training, and mentorship.
“I taught for seven years and did TFA, and it did not prepare me well,” said Cardichon, who worked in a public school in the Bronx.
“I was also TFA, and felt similarly where I didn’t feel adequately prepared,” said DiNapoli Jr., who taught special education for one year in New York City.
Sanders understood these concerns, and in October 2011, he introduced two amendments, known collectively as the Assuring Successful Students through Effective Teaching Act, to address the problem. The measures would clarify that a “highly qualified” teacher would be someone who has completed their traditional or alternative teacher preparation program, and if they had not yet completed it, then parents had to be notified, and the teachers would need to be given additional supervision, guidance, and support.
In a Senate HELP committee hearing, Sanders emphasized that his amendments would not conflict with the goal of attracting new, bright teachers to the classroom, and said he is “a strong supporter of programs like Teach for America and other efforts to attract young people into education.” But, he stressed, it is wrong to characterize someone starting in the classroom two months after college graduation as already highly prepared.
“I think most of the people around this table would agree that doesn’t make any sense,” Sanders said. “That doesn’t make that person not a good teacher, not an inspired teacher; it simply does not make that teacher ‘highly qualified.’”
“If you had a heart condition, and you were going to go to a surgeon, you would go to a surgeon who has many surgeries successfully done,” he added. “And while another surgeon may be wonderful, a young surgeon who hasn’t yet performed his first surgery, you would probably go to the experienced [surgeon] who has already achieved a certain level of accomplishment.”
But Sanders faced great pushback in the committee from Sen. Michael Bennet, a Colorado Democrat who had been appointed to his seat in 2009. Bennet, who had previously served as superintendent of Denver Public Schools, was one of the most education-reform friendly members of Congress, and echoed Teach for America’s talking points in the committee. (Bennet is now one of Sanders’s opponent for the Democratic nomination for president, where he is polling at 1 percent.)
“I strongly object to this amendment,” Bennet said after Sanders finished speaking. “If this amendment were to pass, the federal government would in one fell swoop basically dismantle alternative certification programs, render it impossible for local districts and schools to hire alternatively-licensed teachers that they want to hire. … Adoption of this amendment would kill Teach for America, the New Teacher Project, and any other alternative certification constructs built on the idea that a program participant is a teacher of record while participating.”
Both amendments failed by large margins, though Sanders’s office continued to promote the issue and held a federal briefing on teacher quality the next month.
Cardichon, Sanders’s former education counsel, said despite their best efforts to show that this wasn’t some thinly veiled attack on Teach for America or alternative certification programs, opponents successfully leveraged their power to frame it that way. “TFA’s concern was that schools wouldn’t want to have to notify parents if teachers weren’t highly qualified, so there would be less of an incentive to hire them,” she said. “But you don’t then make them something they’re not to address that concern.”
Many on the HELP committee simply deferred to Bennet, given his experience as a superintendent, and other senators and senate staff were just sympathetic to TFA, seeing it as harmless at worst. Teach for America had also landed a $50 million federal Education Department grant to scale up its operations only a year earlier.
The Coalition for Teaching Quality continued its fight to overturn the 2010 rider, but it did so in the face of strong lobbying resistance from education reform organizations, even as more studies emerged showing that low-income students and students of color were more likely to be taught by uncertified teachers.
In 2012, over the coalition’s objections, a House subcommittee voted to allow teachers-in-training to still be considered “highly qualified” until the end of the 2013-2014 school year. The House members were lobbied not only by Teach for America, but also by a number of other powerful education groups and donors. In one letter sent to House of Representative leaders, billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad, the vice president for education policy at the Center for American Progress, prominent charter school networks like the Knowledge is Power Program, or KIPP, Uncommon Schools, and others joined Teach for America in arguing falsely that if the highly qualified loophole were not extended then “hundreds of thousands of tremendously gifted teachers who have a significant impact on students will not be able to continue to teach.”
That same year, Rep. Rosa DeLauro, in response to advocacy by the Coalition for Teaching Quality, got Congress to ask the U.S. Department of Education to study how many students with disabilities, English-language learners, rural students, and low-income students are taught by teachers who have not yet completed their alternative certification programs. The study, whose results were released in June 2015, looked at data for the 2013-14 school year reported by 49 states and jurisdictions, and estimated over 800,000 students were taught by teachers-in-training. The findings confirmed advocates’ fears about the inequitable distribution of not-yet-certified teachers.
When Congress reauthorized No Child Left Behind, now known as the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, in December 2015, lawmakers scrapped the “highly qualified teacher” designation altogether. Few Democrats wanted to fight for it, and some Republicans, particularly Sen. Lamar Alexander, actively sought to reduce as much federal control over education as possible. Now it’s up to states to determine teacher certification and licensure requirements, though they still have to report to the federal government how they are working to ensure that low-income and minority students are not served disproportionately by “ineffective, out-of-field, or inexperienced teachers.”
“The mood with ESSA was we’re going to undo the controls and the tight dictates of No Child Left Behind,” said Affeldt, the civil rights attorney. “It was essentially a Republican approach of looser standards.”
West, one of the leaders of the civil rights coalition, said the teacher quality situation has grown even more dire since ESSA was passed, noting that it’s no longer federal law for teachers to even hold bachelor’s degrees.
Education reform organizations were less concerned. One leading proponent for evaluating teachers based partly on student standardized test scores told Education Week in 2016, “We’re not holding a funeral over here,” about the end of the “highly qualified” designation.
“Each state has teacher certification and licensure policies to determine who is qualified to teach in their schools, and they make the determination as to who is qualified to teach in classrooms in their state, as was the case for all the years prior to NCLB,” Walsh from Teach for America said in an email. “Our teachers continue to meet those standards.”
But to West, the entire controversy just “boiled down to politics.”