US Department of Education’s definition of “highly qualified teacher” invalidated

The federal regulation implementing the No Child Left Behind Act was partially invalidated. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, the federal court with jurisdiction over Oregon, recently held that a “highly qualified teacher” is a teacher who “has obtained” full state-certification prior to beginning employment. Thus, the Department of Education’s regulation defining “highly qualified teacher” was invalidated because it included teachers who are “participating” in a program to obtain full-certification. 

The purpose of the No Child Left Behind Act (Act) is to close the achievement gap between high- and low-performing students.  According to the Act, all schools receiving Title I funding needed to have “highly qualified” teachers instructing students in core academic subjects by the end of the 2005-06 academic year (i.e., the 100 percent requirement).  The Act contains a lengthy definition of “highly qualified teacher.” Of central concern to this lawsuit was the interpretation of a provision defining “highly qualified teacher” as a teacher who “has obtained full state-certification as a teacher (including certification obtained through alternative routes to certification).”  

The Department of Education is charged with enforcing the Act. Also, it has the power to implement “regulations,” which are often practical interpretations of the official text from Congress. Pursuant to this power, it interpreted “highly qualified teacher” to include teacher who “is participating in an alternative route to certification.” Students, parents, and two community organizations challenged the regulation claiming it impermissibly broadened the scope of the Act. The group asked the court to invalidate the regulation because it allowed a disproportionate number of interns to teach in low-performing schools.  

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals held that the regulation impermissibly expanded the definition of “highly qualified teacher.” In the Act, Congress defined “highly qualified teacher” as a teacher who “has obtained” certification. In the regulation, the Dep’t of Educ. defines “highly qualified teacher” as a teacher who “is participating” in a certification program. The court reasoned that the Dep’t of Educ.’s definition is inconsistent with the unambiguously expressed intent of Congress.  

Renee v. Duncan, 623 F3d 787 (9th Cir 2010).

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