A bill is moving through Congress to put in place a common set of standards for criminal background checks for educators. The bill, sponsored by George Miller, the California Democrat who is the ranking member on the House Education and Workforce Committee, passed the House and is on its way to the Senate. Addressing this problem is a longstanding challenge.
The [George Miller] bill has run into objections from major teachers’ unions like the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. In letters to lawmakers, their criticisms included concerns that the measure might jeopardize workers’ protections under union contracts.
In addition, the NEA wrote that criminal background checks “often have a huge, racially disparate impact” — a reference to critics’ complaints that minorities make up a disproportionately high proportion of people convicted of crimes.
Responding to a tweet from Campbell Brown American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said on Twitter that,”if [you] simply read our letter to Congress our position supporting background checks is obvious.”
The AFT subsequently published the letter and if you read it their position is actually not entirely obvious. Basically they like the spirit of the effort, but not the specifics. Not all of their objections are unreasonable (false positives are an issue, for instance) yet they don’t want the bill to apply to anyone but new teachers or to include a finite time period for checks and want deference to state systems for doing this even though the problematic and porous nature of those state systems is a large part of the impetus for federal action. They also want deference to existing provisions in collective bargaining agreements and state law even though some of those rules are a part of the problem. Collectively those are big loopholes making it hard to read the letter as the strong unambiguous support Weingarten claims or fault the AP’s characterization of the state of play. You can’t fairly characterize the AFT position as seeking to protect sex-offenders but it is a position that places other employment priorities ahead of ensuring 100 percent compliance with background checks and could have that effect.*
The NEA was more direct, their letter to House members is below. As we saw in California with the bill that Governor Jerry Brown vetoed, earlier this month(pdf) the devil is in the details of these things and lies between being for something in general or for it in the specifics.
October 21, 2013
The Honorable XXXXXX
U.S. House of Representatives
XXXXX House Office Building
Washington, DC 20515
Dear Congressman XXXXXXXX:
On behalf of the more than three million members of the National Education Association and the students they serve, we would like to offer the following views on H.R. 2083 to require criminal background checks for school employees, which will be voted on tomorrow.
A safe and secure learning environment is a critical component of a quality education. Educators firmly believe that students need a safe and non-threatening environment to be able to learn to their full potential. Time and again educators have done everything in their power to ensure the health and safety of the students entrusted to them, sometimes even giving their lives—shielding students from harm with their own bodies when a tornado hit in Oklahoma, a shooter invaded Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, a gunman hijacked a school bus in rural Alabama, and on countless other occasions.
NEA supports timely pre-employment criminal background checks for all school employees who work with children without supervision. NEA also supports the sharing of the results of such checks while protecting employees’ due process and privacy rights.
However, the debate around this issue on the Hill seems to be playing out without considering that criminal background checks often have a huge, racially disparate impact. In addition, we are concerned that H.R. 2083, while well intentioned, may run counter to existing state laws requiring background checks.
Educators are everyday heroes: teaching, protecting, purchasing school supplies with their own money, filling backpacks with food for needy children on weekends, and performing countless other acts of ordinary exceptionalism. We look forward to working with Congress to attain the goal we all share: ensuring safe schools for all of our nation’s children so they have the opportunity to focus on learning.
Director, Government Relations
*This sentence edited for clarity from an earlier version of this post.