Rachel M. Cohen tells an important and powerful story of the time when Senator Bernie Sanders stood up to Teach for America.

His efforts were ultimately defeated by Arne Duncan, Senator Michael Bennett of Colorado, and Eli Broad.

In 2011, the Obama administration and TFA’s friends in Congress were eager to call the program’s inexperienced and ill-trained recruits “highly qualified,” to meet the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Law. At that time, Sanders was the only member of Congress to question how a recent college graduate who had never taught could be considered “highly qualified.”

TFA enjoyed the vigorous support of the Obama administration, which gave the wealthy organization $50 million in 2010 (as did the ultra conservative, anti-union Walton Family Foundation). In addition, TFA placed its alums on the staff of every member of the Senate and House education committees, thanks to the generosity of a California billionaire named Arthur Rock, who are then in a position to protect TFA’s interests as well as funding for charter schools. TFA recognized that few if any members of Congress pay close attention to education, since the federal role in education is small, especially compared to issues like healthcare, Social Security, and foreign policy. Thus, most rely on junior staff to inform them, which gives extraordinary power to the TFA plants.

Cohen tells the story of TFA’s battle to ensure that its uncertified recruits were considered “highly qualified” teachers, an oxymoron.

Beginning in the mid-2000s, the group was enmeshed in a dispute over teacher credentialing under the No Child Left Behind Act that demonstrated its ability to marshal influence in D.C. Under the law, a school district was permitted to hire educators who did not meet the “highly qualified” bar if there were teacher shortages. Schools that did so, however, had to then inform parents if their child was taught by such a teacher, publicly disclose how many teachers in the entire school were not highly qualified, and develop a plan to reach 100 percent highly qualified teachers. The law also barred schools from disproportionately concentrating inexperienced and uncertified teachers in classrooms with low-income students and students of color. In other words, if noncertified teachers had to be hired, they also had to be fairly distributed across schools.

Teach for America and its allies in the education reform community lobbied the government, and in 2002, the Department of Education issued a regulation that said “highly qualified” teachers could now also include unlicensed teachers for up to three years if they were making progress toward their certification. This effectively resolved the problem for Teach For America, as most program recruits planned to leave the classroom at the end of their assignment anyway.

In 2007, the civil rights law firm Public Advocates filed a suit against the Department of Education over this regulation. In effect, the lawyers argued, it created an exemption that condoned the assignment of novice, inexperienced teachers to students in high-poverty schools, which are disproportionately nonwhite and low-income.

“It seemed pretty simple to us all along that you can’t have a law that requires ‘full state certification’ for teachers to be highly qualified and also say that people who are in the process of getting their certification meet that designation,” said John Affeldt, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs. “Those are two different states of being.”

Affeldt said there was little question as to why the 2002 regulation came about. “Teach for America applied pressure because they saw the original statute as threatening to their model and to the growth of their organization,” he said. “At some point between its founding and the mid-2000s, Teach for America had changed its belief system from ‘Every student needs fully qualified, highly effective teachers’ to ‘Every student needs us.’ TFA’s model depends on being able to concentrate their people in low-income, high-minority schools, and they thought that was a good thing. And if the law incentivized districts to hire other types of teachers ahead of TFA, well, they didn’t want that. They wanted to be seen on the same level, and some in leadership truly believe that TFA’s teachers-in-training are as good or even better qualified than certified teachers who might apply.”

TFA fought the lawsuit in court and lost, then flexed its political muscles in Congress to protect its interests. The Democrat-controlled Congress overrode the court decision, which infuriated civil rights groups, which actually wanted highly qualified teachers in the classrooms of the neediest students.

The civil rights groups turned to Senator Sanders to fight their battle against TFA. He took up their banner, insisting that “highly qualified” should actually mean “highly qualified.”

In a Senate HELP committee hearing, Sanders emphasized that his amendments would not conflict with the goal of attracting new, bright teachers to the classroom, and said he is “a strong supporter of programs like Teach for America and other efforts to attract young people into education.” But, he stressed, it is wrong to characterize someone starting in the classroom two months after college graduation as already highly prepared.

“I think most of the people around this table would agree that doesn’t make any sense,” Sanders said. “That doesn’t make that person not a good teacher, not an inspired teacher; it simply does not make that teacher ‘highly qualified.’”

“If you had a heart condition, and you were going to go to a surgeon, you would go to a surgeon who has many surgeries successfully done,” he added. “And while another surgeon may be wonderful, a young surgeon who hasn’t yet performed his first surgery, you would probably go to the experienced [surgeon] who has already achieved a certain level of accomplishment.”

But Sanders’ efforts were countered and ultimately defeated by the persistent opposition of Senator Michael Bennett, recently appointed to the Senate after serving as superintendent of the Denver Public Schools. Bennett was and is a huge supporter of corporate reform. He is not an educator. Before his appointment to manage the Denver schools, he was a financier.

When the issue came up again a year later, members of Congress were lobbied by billionaire Eli Broad, who was then vice-president of the neoliberal Center for American Progress and an array of corporate charter chains, which needed TFA recruits. They falsely claimed that without the TFA loophole, “hundreds of thousands of tremendously gifted teachers who have a significant impact on students will not be able to continue to teach.”

Cohen points out that Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro conducted a study that determined that more than 800,000 of the nation’s neediest students had teachers who were still in training, not certified, certainly not “highly qualified.”

This is an excellent analysis of how TFA flexed its muscles and power to defend its self-interest, undermine the plain language of the law, and inflict unqualified teachers on children who actually needed—but didn’t get—highly qualified teachers.