Opinion: Daily Journal

North Carolina: Destination for Problem Teachers

North Carolina’s public schools rely on a steady stream of out-of-state teachers to fill hard-to-staff positions and meet the demands of student enrollment growth. According to statistics from the U.S. Department of Education, more than 7,200 teachers — or approximately half of those receiving their initial North Carolina teacher credential between 2010 and 2013 — were trained in another state.

Naturally, public schools want to ensure that all incoming educators have the knowledge, skills, and character necessary to become successful classroom teachers. As a state, we are fortunate that a vast majority of those pursuing a teaching career in North Carolina meet or exceed our high expectations. But some deadbeats continue to slip through the cracks.

An investigative report conducted by the USA Today Network awarded North Carolina an F, saying its “patchwork system of laws and regulations, combined with inconsistent execution and flawed information sharing between states and school districts, fails to keep teachers with histories of serious misconduct out of classrooms.”

How did North Carolina become what USA Today describes as “among the worst states in the country for screening teachers?”

In 2008, the staff attorney for the North Carolina State Board of Education spearheaded an effort to strengthen the teacher review process. A 24-member task force convened and published its final report, “Raising The Bar For North Carolina Teachers,” in February 2010.

The “Raising The Bar” report recommended taking steps to implement a system of fingerprint background checks, coordinate the sharing of relevant information, and improve reporting processes for state agencies and school boards. These common-sense strategies would have required state education officials to revise existing policies and implement new statewide screening practices.

It also would have required the then-Democratic majority in the N.C. General Assembly to approve legislation during the 2010 session, which convened in May of that year. But then the inexplicable happened. Nothing.

Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson appeared to shelve “Raising The Bar” just weeks after its release. At the April 2010 meeting of the State Board of Education, Atkinson reported plans to appoint an internal working group to address the task force recommendations. There was no published record of any subsequent work by the internal committee or further discussion of the report with members of the state board or legislators.

By the time the newly elected Republican majority convened the 2011 session of the
General Assembly, state public school leaders had moved on to other matters.

Education officials later said that the shocking murder of State Board of Education member Kathy Taft and the urgency of responding to Democratic proposals to slash the state’s public school budget were to blame for their inaction. But neither of these explanations sufficiently accounts for their collective negligence.

In response to the deficiencies exposed by the USA Today investigation, Lt. Gov. Dan Forest and members of the General Assembly have vowed to overhaul our defective system for screening teachers by passing legislation that will give state education officials the authority to implement some of the recommendations outlined in the task force report.

Their role is straightforward. Lawmakers must approve confidentiality protections, authorize fingerprint background checks, and allow the state board to share background check information with school boards and vice versa.

The State Board of Education, Department of Public Instruction, and local school boards will be responsible for implementing recommended policies and practices that have been hibernating for six years. Ultimately, it is their job to ensure that North Carolina public schools no longer put our future in the hands of those with a checkered past.

Dr. Terry Stoops (@TerryStoops) is director of research and education studies at the John Locke Foundation.