When Congress raised certification standards in 2001 for teacher aides in poor schools, few predicted the responses of Angela Bonifacio, Mary Rodden, and Colleen Wezesa.
As classroom helpers in the Haverhill, Mass., public schools, all three are now pursuing an associate's degree at Northern Essex Community College - free of charge. And all three are eyeing new jobs that pay more than the current starting rate of $9.86 per hour.
Ms. Rodden would gladly become a secretary or office manager if further budget cuts were to eliminate her job. Ms. Bonifacio aims to be a certified teacher. Ms. Wezesa likes her job, but she likes the idea of a pay raise even more.
"I would like to stay in education," Wezesa says, "but if something else presented itself and the pay was better, then sure."
These three examples highlight some of the unexpected fallout from the No Child Left Behind Act. According to education-policy analysts, lawmakers had intended to make sure the nation's 621,000 teacher aides bring to the classroom a confidence in their own reading, writing, and analytical skills.
But as the policy takes effect for a legion of mothers whose "lives got interrupted" due to family and financial pressures years ago, the offer of a free education is igniting a host of new dreams even as the prospect of being tested is provoking fresh fears.
Both could be harbingers, experts say, of thinning ranks among teacher aides.
"My fear is that we will drive out more [teacher aides] than we promote" to a higher pay grade, says Bruce Fuller, professor of education and public policy at the University of California at Berkeley.
"The worry [especially in urban districts] is, if you drive the aide out, then who's going to talk to the kids in their own language?"
Teacher aides, also known as "paraprofessionals," help teachers manage classroom discipline and reinforce the lessons. More often than not, these are women with children in the school system where they work. Pay can be as low as $11,000 per year for full-time work.
But because the work can be rewarding - and the schedule usually lets them be with their children when school lets out - many say they welcome what is often a second household income.
Under new federal requirements, all teacher aides in low-income schools, known as Title 1, must demonstrate competence in their field by 2006.
Teacher aides can do so either by passing a certain number of college courses, by attaining an associate's degree, or by passing a state-approved qualifying exam.
Some districts, such as Haverhill, have made continuing-education funds available to all teacher aides, not just those from Title I positions.
The result: Certain public colleges have had to scramble to meet demand, while others sense a reluctance to return to school.
El Paso Community College in Texas, for instance, has enrolled 450 of the city's 1,600 teacher aides over the past two years. Another 84 have already advanced to the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) to pursue a teaching certificate.
With state and federal funds available, teacher aides on the Mexican border have become part of an aggressive pipeline to help stem a teacher shortage in the region - even if it means creating a shortage of teacher aides.
"We felt we had a tremendous pool of potential teachers" among the aides, says Josie Tinajero, interim dean of the School of Education at UTEP. "They know about the salaries, they know about the schools, yet they have a desire to remain there."
That desire, she says, could help stem the 40 percent dropout rate among new teachers in El Paso, where she says low salaries and lack of respect often lead rookies to quit. To make the most of the opportunity, Ms. Tinajero and her staff have, over the past couple years, held recruitment meetings with about 1,200 of the area's teacher aides.
Meanwhile in South Dakota, where almost every school qualifies for Title I federal dollars, only 30 of the state's 1,700 teacher aides have inquired about new opportunities to study at state colleges.
Despite distance-learning options that, for example, would allow a mother to pursue her degree from home, most seem to be waiting to take the state's competency test instead - or to seek early retirement.
"We realize there probably aren't a lot of people out there who want to spend the time and money to meet the educational requirements for a job that pays $7 per hour," says Sharon Tebben, dean of the School of Education at Northern State University in Aberdeen, S.D. "And why get the degree if the only other option is to work at the hardware store? That is, if there even is a hardware store where you live."
According to policy analysts, the anticipated shortage of teacher aides brings back memories of 1996, when California reduced class sizes for the earliest grades from an average of 36 to a maximum of 20.
Preschool teachers quickly leaped for tuition vouchers so that they could become certified elementary teachers, leaving the state's preschools to rely largely on substitute teachers.
That reliance continues to this day. And, in the current teacher-aide situation, aides' fear of failure might drain the ranks even more than the incentives for advancement will.
"They start out saying, 'I can't do this, I'm too old to go back to school,' " says Melissa Juchniewicz, an English composition instructor at Northern Essex Community College in Haverhill. "Even the language - 'I'm a substitute teacher,' 'I'm a paraprofessional' - suggests you're only half a person. It all plays into feelings of low self-esteem."
Teachers are probably more likely to get training in suburban white communities, where night schools offer a well-trod path to new opportunities, than they are in urban districts, where immigrant families may find the prospect too daunting, says Mr. Fuller, the policy analyst at UC Berkeley.
"I'm afraid this [new requirement] could negatively impact the urban districts and positively affect the suburbs," Fuller says.
"This could exacerbate that gap even further."
Back in Haverhill, on a windy March night, 16 teacher aides made presentations on the art of essay writing. None was required to be there. All said the education would surely help in their current jobs.
Yet they all seemed to have a sense that a new world might be opening up for them, as they work toward a formal certificate.
"That's where it's starting," says Edie Riley, a mother in her 40s who married at 19 and soon thereafter gave birth to a mildly retarded son. At her rate - one course per semester - she will earn her associates degree in five years.
"I'm hoping it will lead to more."