Civil rights advocates are blasting new federal legislation that allows states to classify teaching interns as "highly qualified" teachers and regularly assign them to schools with mostly poor, minority students.
The measure, which remains in effect until the end of the 2012-13 school year, was signed Dec. 22 by President Barack Obama as part of an unrelated federal spending bill.
The legislation nullifies a Sept. 27 decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled that California illegally classified thousands of teachers in training as "highly qualified" in violation of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
Under that law, all students are supposed to be taught by "highly qualified" teachers who have earned state teaching credentials, but a 2004 Bush administration policy allowed states to give that status to interns working toward certification.
The San Francisco-based appeals court struck down that policy, siding with low-income families in Richmond, Hayward and Los Angeles that claimed that a disproportionate number of uncredentialed teachers were teaching in their schools.
That 2-1 ruling would have required districts to distribute teaching interns more evenly across schools and to notify parents when their child is not taught by a fully credentialed teacher, but the new legislation temporarily allows teachers in training to keep the "highly qualified" status.
Rep. George Miller, the California Democrat who leads the House Education and Labor Committee, said the amendment was necessary because the 9th Circuit decision "could cause major and unpredictable disruptions to schools across the country if it was implemented before Congress can fully address issues of teacher preparedness, effectiveness and access."
But civil rights advocates who filed the lawsuit said the legislation will hurts the tens of thousands of mostly poor students of color who are taught by inexperienced teachers.
"With this amendment, Congress is really turning its back on low-income, minority students," said Tara Kini, a staff attorney with Public Advocates, a San Francisco-based nonprofit law firm that filed the lawsuit.
Kini also complained that the amendment was approved by Congress at the last minute and without debate.
"There was just no opportunity for the public to weigh in," Kini said Tuesday. "That's not how we should be making foundational education policy in this country."
The lawsuit claims that more than 10,000 interns were teaching in California public schools in 2007. About 62 percent of interns taught in the poorest half of California schools, and more than half were assigned to schools with at least 90 percent students of color.
The number of teaching interns has dropped to about 8,000 because state budget cuts have led to fewer teaching positions and fewer people are entering the teacher credentialing programs, Kini said.
Nationwide, more than 100,000 intern teachers are classified as "highly qualified," according to the lawsuit.