SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- A federal appeals court has ruled that California illegally classified interns as "highly qualified" teachers and assigned them to schools in low-income and minority areas.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Monday in favor of low-income families from Richmond, Hayward and Los Angeles who claimed the state was dumping uncredentialed teachers on their schools.
A Bush administration policy adopted by a California commission held that interns on track to receive teaching certification could count as "highly qualified."
The court found that those policies violated the federal No Child Left Behind law, which requires teachers have full state certification to teach core subjects.
"This is a tremendous victory for the millions of students across the country that are disproportionately taught every day by teachers with very little training," said John Affeldt, managing attorney at Public Advocates Inc., a public interest group representing the plaintiffs.
Evidence cited by the court showed that 62 percent of the interns teach in the poorest half of California schools. Plaintiffs also presented evidence that more than half of California's interns are teaching in schools that are at least 90 percent students of color.
The court's 2-1 decision reversed its own earlier ruling, which found the plaintiffs lacked standing to sue.
The decision does not mean that the 10,000 intern teachers in California will be immediately removed from the classroom, Affeldt said. But he said the state will be forced to adjust its policies to ensure that teachers who meet the court's stricter definition of "highly qualified" are more evenly distributed.
Affeldt said how long it would take before the changes demanded by the court were visible in classrooms depends on how effectively the state could recruit teachers that meet the tougher standard.
"I think it's going to be a longer-term state constitutional and fiscal discussion about what we need to do to support districts and schools to get teachers where we need them," Affeldt said. "But this is certainly good pressure."
State department of education spokeswoman Hilary McLean said state school superintendent Jack O'Connell applauded the attention the lawsuit brought to the need for effective teachers for all students. But she said the ruling would not likely result in big changes on the makeup of teachers in California classrooms.
"Over the last several years our department has been working closely with districts to reduce their reliance on interns," McLean said. During the 2008-09 school year, the last year for which data was available, about 1.6 percent of California teachers were interns, she said.
The total overall number of underprepared teachers has dropped dramatically over the past decade, said John Rogers, director of the Institute for Democracy, Education and Access. But schools that serve the highest proportion of African-American and Latino students still have the least access to high-quality teachers, he said.
The number of interns in the school system jumped during a push in the late 1990s to reduce public school class sizes, McLean said. She called the state's budget crisis a major obstacle to recruiting new teachers.
"The pipeline is siphoning off because prospective teachers are being dissuaded from entering the profession when they see teachers laid off," she said.
Rogers said retaining certified teachers also remains a particular challenge to schools that serve low-income students.
Those schools have had difficulty maintaining conditions that Rogers said teachers have told researchers are key to keeping them on the job: supportive and effective principals, well-kept school facilities and the needed tools for teaching and learning.
Fixing teacher disparities in California schools will take more than stripping interns of "highly qualified" status," Rogers said.
"Just by saying you can't do this anymore is not enough alone," he said. "There will need to be a series of policy responses that will ensure an equitable distribution of teachers."