Some 30,000 "highly qualified" Texas public school teachers don't actually meet the federal definition for that standard — which could jeopardize their jobs and will certainly cause bureaucratic headaches for them and their school systems. [TEA's original estimate was later shown to be way too high, as is explained here.]
The teachers in question did not take a required general knowledge exam, but rather believed — on the advice of the Texas Education Agency — that a specific subject knowledge test would suffice.
The snafu, apparently due to a miscommunication between state and federal bureaucrats, was disclosed in a letter from the Texas Education Agency to school systems obtained Wednesday by The Texas Tribune. Districts across the state seek to have 100 percent "highly qualified" staff to meet federal standards under the No Child Left Behind Act — meaning many of the teachers in question might not have been hired in the first place, said Texas Education Agency spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe.
The agency stressed in its correspondence, however, that it has asked federal authorities to review the matter, and that many teachers may be able to complete the requirements and gain the "highly qualified" designation. The 30,000 figure is just a guess — based on typical turnover in a state with 600,000 teachers, Ratcliffe said.
The term "highly qualified" comes from the federal No Child Left Behind Act and generally has replaced state certification standards. The problem here stems from differing interpretations by the Texas and U.S. education departments over qualifications to gain the credential.
Federal monitors who visited the agency last month, however, disabused them of the notion that subject-specific tests would suffice for elementary teachers, who teach multiple subjects. They sent the state a ruling, which it forwarded to districts. The state has asked for federal leniency in the matter, but as it told districts in the letter: "there may be little or no flexibility" from U.S. education officials on the designations.
"It's a significant concern," Ratcliffe said. "Sometimes it can take months to get an answer (from the feds), and in Texas, if they want to non-renew a contract, they have to tell the teacher by March. And of course they have to start hiring by then.
"It has all kinds of implications," she said.
In addition, according to the TEA letter, school systems will have to ensure that those teachers who don't qualify are not being paid by federal grants funds, such as the Title I program, which aims to improve education for children in poverty. And Texas has tens of thousands of public school students in those programs and can get the federal funds if their teachers meet the federal standard, Ratcliffe said.
Further, school systems would have to mail potentially tens of thousands of letters to parents statewide informing them that their teachers don't meet the federal standard, a logistical and public relations nightmare.
"We're hoping that we will get some flexibility on this issue," she said. "But we're just not sure yet."
Texas Tribune donors or members may be quoted or mentioned in our stories, or may be the subject of them. For a complete list of contributors, click here.