Protecting Student and Public Interests

Protecting Student and Public Interests

In a recent article from Renee Schoof at McClatchy, NACSA’s Alex Medler weighed in on a provision in a charter school bill in North Carolina that would allow charter schools discretion over “whether and under what circumstances” to conduct background checks of prospective employees.

Alex makes the case that even if background checks are not required by state law for district schools, loosening this requirement for charters is a step in the wrong direction.

“You can have flexibility about how you do it,” he said, “but the idea that you wouldn’t do it is not sound. Part of the authorizer’s responsibility is protecting the interest of the students.”

Todd Ziebarth, vice president for state advocacy at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools agreed that this was a basic requirement. “In most if not all other states, charter schools are required to do same background checks as employees as traditional system,” he said.

As hard as it is to believe, though, there is wide variation in regulation and quality between and within states in how this is handled by all schools (charter, district-managed, and private). Some states require background checks in state law and others do not. Some state laws list the offenses that trigger disqualification and others are silent.

Apparently, North Carolina law delegates policy making on background checks in its traditional public schools to the school districts that operate them, including the decision as to whether to conduct background checks at all. Supporters of the change for charter schools argue that it simply gives the same discretion to charters that district schools already have. Supporters also argue that “most” charter schools will still decide to do background checks even without the requirement.

These are both weak arguments for bad policy.

As Alex notes in the McClatchy piece, one a of a charter school authorizer’s core responsibilities is to protect student and public interests. Doing so means ensuring that schools are taking reasonable steps to ensure a safe environment for their students. Conducting background checks is one of these basic steps. Irrespective of whether state law requires it or not, NACSA recommends that all charter school authorizers make background checks a requirement for all of the schools they authorize through an explicit provision in the charter contract and regularly monitor school practices in this area. Here is a contract provision that NACSA recommends be included in every charter contract:

E. Background Checks. The School agrees to obtain and retain copies of fingerprints and state and national background checks for all employees. The School shall give notice to the Authorizer of any employee it finds who has a prior conviction of a felony and of any employee who is convicted of a felony during the term of an employee’s employment. The Authorizer may conduct background checks of School employees as it deems necessary for the health and safety of students. Employee rosters and proof of background check clearance shall be provided to the Authorizer as required by the Organizational Performance Framework incorporated as Appendix [NUMBER].

It’s the 21st century. We live in one of the most developed countries on the planet. Is not a background check for every school employee a reasonable requirement?