Interesting back and forth on Twitter today about H.R. 2083, the Protecting Students from Sexual and Violent Predators Act (text here). Basically, frustrated by stuff like this the bill is an effort to create a national standard for how background checks for educators and those left unsupervised with children should work. The bill passed the House, is now in the Senate. The NEA made clear it has objections, the position of the AFT has been harder to figure out. That’s what the twitter discussion was about.
The confusion started when AFT President Randi Weingarten in response to an AP story saying the AFT objected to the bill, said that they did not and subsequently published their letter to the Hill about it. Fair enough, they didn’t formally object but offered several suggestions the union thinks would improve the legislation. And they said they supported the “spirit” of the bill. All of which is Washington code for “sort of, but.” Still, there are certainly several levels of escalation past that language if you really want to coerce a no vote.
Substantively, however, the AFT’s suggestions are not minor ones. Some are quite reasonable – individuals who falsely fail a background check do often get caught in a Kafkaesque nightmare to clear their record. Others, though, would undo the intent of the bill. In particular the AFT wants:
We suggest that states with background check laws that are at least as demanding and thorough as those proposed in H.R. 2083 be granted the flexibility and authority to use their own state laws and procedures in place of the new federal rules laid out in the bill. For those states that make use of the federal rules, state procedures should be developed in a way that respects the rights, remedies and procedures afforded school employees under federal, state or local laws (including applicable regulations, executive orders or court orders) or under the terms of collective bargaining agreements, memoranda of understanding, or other agreements between school employees and their employers.
There are a few problems here. First, weak state systems are a big part of the problem (a landmark 2007 AP investigation laid bare the problems) and given the stakes and the interstate nature of the problem it makes sense to get everyone to adhere to a common set of standards than go down the policy rabbit hole of what’s comparable. More fundamentally, asking for deference to language in teachers contracts and state laws merely perpetuates today’s problems. It’s legislative Ice-nine in a lot of places.
Later in the letter the AFT asks for some exemptions:
We therefore suggest that H.R. 2083 apply only to new hires and/or include a time limit of 45 days for the check to be completed, as provided for in S. 1086 [the Child Care and Development block grant, which has language on this issue].
In other words, these new federal standards (which the AFT wants to defer to current law and collective bargaining agreements anyway) would not apply to current personnel and anyone who can’t get a background check completed in 45 days would be exempt. This is how a bill becomes toothless. The current personnel language is an enormous loophole. Though it should be kept in proper perspective, this is a problem now not just in the future. The 45 day time limit is also a problem. It’s hard for employers and prospective employees when a slow check delays employment, but a better solution is to put in place some funding to ensure expeditious background checks, not exempt people because the system isn’t robust enough. Again, remember the stakes of what we’re talking about here.
When asked how this language didn’t create a huge loophole Weingarten wasn’t clear. She focused on other parts of the letter and distanced herself from this language, but how far is not clear. When Roll Call reporter Kyle Trygstad asked ”So is AFT not requesting a 45-day limit that if exceeded teacher gets hired anyway?” Weingarten responded, “No.” But she declined to respond to questions about the language on current employees or whether the letter had incorrect language in it given her response to Trygstad.
In other words, the AFT’s exact position remains murky. Deferring to state laws and teachers’ contracts is a boilerplate position on a variety of federal policy issues.It’s a problem on this issue but not a unique position for the AFT to take. The time limits and exemptions for existing employees is a trickier issue both in terms of the public optics and substantively for the union. That may well be why it was at the bottom of the letter.
My take is that policy is always a balancing act of competing priorities. I don’t think Randi Weingarten or any other teachers’ union official has any interest in protecting predators. I know many of these people and know they’re as repulsed by these problems as anyone. But they do have an interest in protecting certain approaches to personnel issues and some of those approaches are in conflict with best practices on this issue and can have the effect of making it harder to address this problem. That’s the real tension here.
For students and families impacted by this the intent of various players is not nearly as significant as the actual effects of various policies. Keep an eye on this bill and this issue.