(Update: Harkin office confirms he worked to get the measure in the bill)

Unobtrusively slipped into the debt deal that Congress passed late Wednesday night to reopen the federal government after 16 days and allow the United States to keep borrowing money to pay its bills is a provision about school reform that will make Teach For America very happy.

In language that does not give a hint about its real meaning, the deal extends by two years legislation that allows the phrase “highly qualified teachers” to include students still in teacher training programs — and Teach For America’s  recruits who get five weeks of summer training shortly after they have graduated from college, and are then placed in some of America’s neediest schools.

On page 20 of this bill passed by the House, it says:

SEC. 145. Subsection (b) of section 163 of Public 5 Law 111-242, as amended, is further amended by striking 6 ”2013-2014” and inserting ”2015-2016”.

The law that is being amended includes the highly qualified provision, which Teach For America and other school reformers had persuaded legislators to pass a few years ago.

Under No Child Left Behind,  all children are supposed to have highly qualified teachers, school districts are supposed to let parents know which teachers are not highly qualified, and these teachers are supposed to be equitably distributed in schools. They aren’t. It turns out that teachers still in training programs are disproportionately concentrated in schools serving low-income students and students of color, the very children who need the very best the teaching profession has to offer. The inequitable distribution of these teachers also has a disproportionate impact on students with disabilities.

The person who pushed the language into the bill was Sen. Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democrat who is chairman of the Senate’s education committee and a big Teach For America supporter.  According to a statement from his communications director, Kate Cyrul Frischmann a spokesman,  “Senator Harkin, in his role as Chairman of the education appropriations subcommittee, worked with members on both sides of the aisle to include the teacher qualification language in the CR.”  The Obama administration is a big TFA supporter too, having awarded tens of millions of dollars to the organization over the past several years. Administration officials have never offered a public explanation about why someone with five weeks of training should be deemed “highly qualified.”

Congress first approved legislation allowing student teachers and others with little training to be deemed “highly qualified” in late 2010, shortly after the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the definition violated NCLB. In 2011 a coalition of  more than 50 organizations — including education, civil rights, disability, student, parent, and community groups – urged Obama in this letter not to keep the definition, but it did anyway.

Another letter was sent to President Obama last May by a long list of organizations asking the administration for a “state-by-state picture on the number of students in certain subgroups being taught by teachers-in-training through alternative routes to certification.” This data is required to be produced by the end of this year but the U.S. Department of Education has not yet collected the statistics, according to Kenneth Zeichner, a professor of teacher education at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Zeichner calls the “highly qualified” teacher definition approved by Congress a charade on the American public. Read why here.