USA Today has produced an outstanding piece of journalism with its report, Broken Discipline Tracking Systems Let Teachers Flee Troubled Pasts. The fascinating investigation has uncovered glaring weaknesses in how teachers are vetted before being allowed into the classroom. They do point out that the number of teachers facing some kind of disciplinary action serious enough to affect their teaching license is very small -- about 1% of the 3 million US teachers. But knowing that teachers are being allowed around children after being accused of violence or even sexual assault is utterly terrifying.
The article describes several horror stories about teachers being under investigation in one state and just applying for jobs in another. With no national clearinghouse to show if a teacher’s license is in good standing, other school districts often snap these applicants up with little or no background screening.
Some states, like Pennsylvania, have passed laws to make more stringent background checks mandatory for anyone working in schools, including volunteers. But some states, like North Carolina, do not require any criminal background checks when someone applies for teaching credentials. Other countries, like the United Kingdom, have a centralized government system to track teachers across jurisdictions. The closest we have is the National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification (NASDTEC), a non-profit that maintains a database of disciplinary actions against teachers. Unfortunately, this system depends on school districts reporting issues. The USA Today investigation found 9,000 disciplinary records from across the country that were not included in the database.
We have blogged in the past about Senator Pat Toomey’s efforts to strengthen protections in Pennsylvania schools, and he has also spearheaded an effort to require all school districts that receive federal funds to do periodic background checks on all employees and contractors. The effort died for two reasons: complaints that the federal government was encroaching on state and local matters, and that unions felt it would violate their negotiated contracts.
The bottom line is that there is no clear cut way to make sure a teacher’s license is in good standing. This might not matter as much if all school districts required thorough background screening before hiring teachers, but unfortunately the investigation also found that this too varies wildly from district to district. Many of those that do require criminal background check still depend solely on the FBI Fingerprint Database which, if you are a regular reader of this blog, you know is notoriously incorrect and incomplete.
One solution as we wait for some kind of national clearinghouse, would be for school districts to institute more complete background checks like the ones performed by EBI and other Consumer Reporting Agencies (CRAs). Extended background searches will locate criminal activity across the country, search the national sex offender registry, and confirm teachers have the education and work history they claim on their resumes. These background searches can also go deeper to get more accurate references from prior employers. There is a way to solve the problem, but like everything else, it takes money -- something school administrators never have enough of.