Arizona education officials are sponsoring a bill improving oversight of “non-certified educators,’’ plugging loopholes some accused sex offenders, and others with questionable backgrounds, have used to slip through in the past.
“Uncertified educators’’ represent a broad category of school professionals, which includes about 6,000 people working in both school districts and charter schools.
They would include coaches, student teachers and some administrators who have regular or occasional interaction with students.
“There are gaps where fingerprint identification cards aren’t necessary for people working with kids,’’ said Alicia Williams, executive director of the Arizona Board of Education.
If it becomes law, the bill could impact about 2,000 uncertified school district employees throughout the state and 4,000 charter school employees. Williams said about 60 percent of charter school teachers are certified, while 40 percent are non-certified.
Williams said the bill is in draft form and will be introduced in the legislative session beginning next month.
The bill essentially would extend the rules already applied to certified educators to uncertified teachers as well.
School districts and charter schools would be required to submit a list of all educators working with children to the state Board of Education, a practice already followed by the vast majority of districts and charter schools.
“We’re trying to have oversight of unprofessional and immoral conduct,’’ Williams said.
The board currently has authority to investigate certified educators and to take action against them.
During the 2018-19 school year, the board disciplined 131 educators throughout the state. The variety of disciplines included revocation of certification, surrender, suspension, and a letter of censure, Williams said.
So far, 74 educators have been disciplined during the 2019-2020 school year, with another 21 are scheduled to come before the board at the Dec. 13 meeting.
Williams stressed she is not attempting to expand certification, but the bill would subject non-certified educators to the same sort of discipline as certified educators.
She said she is working with state Rep. Michelle Udall, R-Mesa, a former Mesa Public Schools Governing Board member, on sponsoring the legislation.
Udall said the primary loophole involves teachers accused of a crime, but the case for whatever reason either never reaches law enforcement or does not result in charges being filed.
By addressing the loophole, “we are not allowing them to shuffle from school to school,’’ she said.
Certified teachers, principals and school superintendents are required to obtain the fingerprint clearance cards, which are monitored by the state Department of Public Safety.
The standard of proof used by the board in disciplining certified educators is lower than the proof beyond reasonable doubt standard used in criminal courts.
Williams said an expanded safety net would allow the board to discipline certified and non-certified educators who, for one reason or another, have been accused of crimes, but have not been prosecuted or convicted.
“We have to prove the conduct more than likely occurred,’’ she said. “It’s all about keeping kids safe.’’
The board approved the effort to get a bill introduced and some draft language at its Oct. 28 meeting and the proposed legislation was under review by the state Legislative Counsel’s Office.
“The most significant recommendation permits the state to investigate and take action against non-certified educators who engage in immoral or unprofessional conduct,’’ according to board documents.
The draft language in the bill backs up with the requirement school districts report such suspected instances to the Department of Education in writing as soon as possible.
Although the measure is in its infancy, two major education organizations, the Arizona School Boards Association and the Arizona Charter Schools Association, both said they support it conceptually.
Chris Kotterman, director of government relations for the School Boards Association, said he supports additional oversight of non-certified educators.
He said it makes sense for the state to add non-certified educators to the tracking system already in place for certified employees. Certified educators already have an identification number districts can track.
“It’s just going to a web site and making sure an educator’s identification number is clear,’’ Kotterman said. “From our perspective, we are in support of the state board having oversight.’’
If the bill is approved, “It provides a mechanism to attack allegations across districts,’’ he said. In other words, a district in central Phoenix would know when a red flag was raised about a job candidate in another district miles away, such as Mesa or Chandler.
The draft language specifically directs school districts to check the Educator Information System’ before hiring certified or non-certified personnel.
Some exceptions include transportation, food service and maintenance employees. Kotterman and Udall both said school bus drivers are required to get the fingerprint cards under different legislation.
Jake Logan, president and CEO of the Arizona Charter Association, said he also supports expanded oversight and praised the state board for initiating the legislation.
“I do think it’s something we can work out. I am in support of the concept,’’ Logan said. “We are very supportive of the concept no one has access to children who have slipped through the cracks.’’
“There ought to be a mechanism in place so we know we have done everything possible to make sure children are safe.’’
Logan said he would have opposed legislation expanding certification. He said state statutes allow charter schools the flexibility to select the best teachers possible, even if they are not certified.
“If Bill Gates wanted to teach computers, it would be a good thing,’’ he said.
The Legislature last year approved a law allowing noncertified individuals to be hired as substitute teachers.
But protecting children is a non-partisan issue and student safety is a high priority for all schools, whether they are district or charter, Logan said.
“I am optimistic we can get something done this year,’’ Logan said. “I can think of no higher priority than protecting our students.’’