The U.S. Department of Education (“ED”) recently issued a second Dear Colleague Letter interpreting the Every Student Succeeds Act (“ESSA”), which reauthorizes the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (“ESEA”) and largely replaced the No Child Left Behind Act (“NCLB”). Like ED’s December 18, 2015 ESSA Dear Colleague Letter, which we discussed in a previous FR Alert, much of the guidance in the January 28, 2016 letter is directed to States. The guidance does shed some light on one issue of interest to school districts, however—ESSA’s move away from the NCLB “highly-qualified teacher” (HQT) requirement, particularly with respect to special education teachers. These changes appear to be in line with the general shift in ESSA from the heavy-handed federal control of NCLB toward more local control on issues, including these issues of teacher qualifications.

ESSA jettisoned the requirements from NCLB that school districts employ “highly qualified” teachers in core academic subject areas, report the “highly qualified” status of their teachers, and, if not making progress toward the HQT requirements, create and implement an improvement plan. To be highly qualified under NCLB, a teacher had to have a bachelor’s degree, full state certification or licensure, and a demonstrated knowledge of the subject taught. The ED guidance made clear that the shift away from the HQT requirements should begin with the 2016-17 school year, to ensure an “orderly transition” from NCLB to ESSA.

The ED guidance also clarified that the move away from the HQT requirements also applies to special education teachers. The guidance explains that ESSA removed the requirement that special education teachers be “highly qualified” in the subject matter taught from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”). School districts must, however, continue to ensure during the 2016-17 school year that special education teachers meet other qualification requirements from IDEA, including the certification and licensure requirements and the requirement to hold a bachelor’s degree.

Finally, the guidance noted that although these “highly qualified” changes are in effect for the 2016-17 school year, except in limited circumstances, reporting requirements related to the 2014-15 and 2015-16 school year remain unchanged, including reporting requirements related to HQT.

Although the guidance answers some important questions regarding the transition away from HQT requirements during the 2016-17 school year, there are still many unanswered questions for how ESSA will be implemented in future years. ED has already begun the regulatory process for issuing regulations implementing ESSA, and those regulations are expected to be final later this year. ED has made various resources available on ESSA at www.ed.gov/essa, and will answer questions on ESSA at essa.questions@ed.govThe Illinois State Board of Education is also preparing a webpage to help guide districts through the transition to ESSA and fielding questions on ESSA at essa@isbe.net.