Issue: Education
Topic: Teacher Quality
Case Date: August 23, 2007


In August 2007, Public Advocates and Goodwin Procter, representing Californians for Justice, California ACORN and several parents and students, sued the United States Department of Education and the Secretary of Education for violating the teacher quality provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). In the first lawsuit of its kind, the plaintiffs argued that a Department regulation had created a major loophole in NCLB that defied the will of Congress and harmed students nationwide by defining teachers-in-training enrolled in alternative route teacher certification programs as “highly qualified teachers.” In California, these alternative route teachers-in-training are called “interns.”

Under NCLB all students are owed a highly qualified teacher, which is defined as a teacher who has met the state’s level of “full certification.” That certification, in turn, is awarded to teachers who have completed all their teacher training requirements. Moreover, the act stipulates that where a state or district lacks 100% highly qualified teachers, low-income students and students of color may not be disproportionately taught by teachers who are not “highly qualified.” The Department’s regulation allowed alternative route trainees only making “progress toward full certification” and still in training to be deemed “highly qualified.”

As a result, students attending low-income, high-minority schools were beingdisproportionately taught by interns still in training and working toward full certification.

Renee I In July 2009, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a disappointing 2-1 decision in Renee v. Duncan, largely agreeing on the merits of the case but determining that the plaintiffs lacked standing. The plaintiffs subsequently filed a petition for rehearing.

Renee II On September 27, 2010, in a rare reversal of an earlier decision, the same three-judge panel withdrew its prior opinion and issued a decision in favor of the plaintiffs. By a 2-1 margin, in a decision authored by Judge William Fletcher, the panel affirmed the plaintiffs’ standing and accepted their arguments, reversing a lower federal district court decision. Specifically, the court held that:
The “precise question at issue” is the difference between the meaning of “has obtained” full State certification in the statute…and the meaning of “demonstrates satisfactory progress toward” full State certification in the [U.S. Department of Education] regulation…The difference between having obtained something and merely making satisfactory progress toward that thing is patent. We conclude that the Secretary’s regulation impermissibly expands the definition of “highly qualified teacher” … by including in that definition an alternative-route teacher who merely “demonstrates satisfactory progress toward” the requisite “full State certification.” 623 F.3d 787, 796 (9th Cir. 2010).
The effect of the decision was that intern teachers-in-training must be fairly spread across schools, and parents notified when their student has one of these teachers.

Contrary to the claims of Teach for America and other alternative certification programs, who in October 2010 filed an amicus curiae brief urging the court to reconsider its decision, the decision did not mean that interns could no longer teach in California or elsewhere.

However, it would, for the first time, apply rigor and daylight to what had previously lacked both. States and districts would not be at liberty to rely indefinitely on underprepared novice interns. Districts also would not be able to concentrate them in low-income, high minority schools. Nor would they be able to mislabel brand new interns as “highly qualified” teachers in communications with parents or reports to the public and Congress. If districts and states used interns to fill shortages or for other purposes, they would, for the first time, be held accountable. They would bear the political consequences of failing to supply fully prepared teachers and have incentives, previously lacking, to provide inducements to attract such teachers and improve teacher preparation pipelines.

In short, the panel’s decision finally allowed NCLB’s critical transparency and accountability provisions related to highly qualified teachers to operate as Congress intended them to.

The 2010 Continuing Resolution Amendment

Unfortunately, the Ninth Circuit’s Renee II decision in favor of low-income students and parents was never allowed to take effect. In December 2010, in the final days of the lame-duck session, Congress passed an amendment as part of the Continuing Resolution (CR) to fund the government (Public Law 111-322) that sought to halt implementation of the Ninth Circuit’s decision in Renee v. Duncan. The so-called HQT amendment, inserted in the law at the eleventh hour and without public debate, temporarily codified the Bush-era regulation that the Ninth Circuit struck down in Renee, defining alternative route teachers-in-training as “highly qualified” teachers. At the time it was passed, members of Congress defended the temporary amendment, which ran through the 2012-2013 school year, as seeking to avoid any mid-year disruptions to schools caused by the Ninth Circuit’s decision. (You can read more about this issue in our Huffington Post blogs.)

The Renee plaintiffs, as well as other grassroots organizations representing over a half million low-income families nationwide, sent a letter to Congress strongly opposing the amendment. Congress’ action triggered the formation of the nation’s largest teacher quality coalition, the Coalition for Teaching Quality (CTQ). Now made up of nearly 100 civil rights, disability, parent, student, community, educator and education policy organizations from across the country, the CTQ actively pursues federal policies to ensure every child has a fully prepared and effective teacher.

Renee III In May, 2012, the Ninth Circuit addressed the impact of the Continuing Resolution amendment on its prior decision. The court reaffirmed its September 2010 ruling that the Department of Education had unlawfully diluted the standard of teacher owed every student in the country under NCLB when it issued the original 2002 regulation classifying teachers-in-training as “highly qualified.”

The court proceeded to dismiss the Renee v. Duncan case, however, because the CR temporarily qualified the country’s approximately 100,000 teachers-in-training in alternate route programs as “highly qualified” through the 2012-13 year. The court found that there was no relief presently owed to the plaintiffs, but held the issue was not moot and that, absent further Congressional action, alternate route trainees must once again be deemed not “highly qualified” after June 2013.

The decision was an acknowledgment that the Department wrongly allowed teachers-in-training to become concentrated in poor and minority schools across the country for the eight years between NCLB’s passage and the temporary CR measure in 2010. It also made clear that when the CR expires, absent additional Congressional action, these less-than-fully-prepared teachers must again be fairly spread across classrooms and that parents must be notified when their children receive instruction from these teachers.


In September 2012, through another Continuing Resolution budget bill (Public Law 112-175), Congress extended the HQT amendment an additional year through the 2013-14 school year, continuing to label alternate route teachers-in-training as “highly qualified” and permitting them to be concentrated in low-income, high-minority schools.

At the same time, Congress passed a new law requiring the Secretary of Education to report to Congress by December 31, 2013 on the extent to which teachers-in-training enrolled in alternative certification programs are teaching students with disabilities, English learners, low-income and rural students.

This data will be critical as Congress determines future teacher equity policies and revisits the “highly qualified teacher” definition as part of the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (also known as No Child Left Behind).

For more information about the coalition of nearly 100 organizations that opposed Congress’s amendment and joined forces to demand that Congress provide all students with fully-prepared and effective teachers, visit our project page, Federal Advocacy: Fully Prepared and Effective Teachers for All Students.

NOTE: This case was formerly called Renee v. Spellings when originally filed during the Bush Administration.

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