Charter school personnel are flying under the radar of investigations of educator malfeasance, a state education investigator said, potentially allowing them to move from school to school without detection.
In the wake of recent state legislation that strengthened the requirements on administrators to report questionable contact between educators and students, “I would expect this to be addressed in the next session,” said Doug Phillips, director of investigations for the Texas Education Agency.
Under Senate Bill 7, passed last year, administrators are required to notify the state if there is any evidence of contact, whereas the law previously allowed for something more concrete. Charter school employees are included in the language, but only those who are certified through the state can be tracked.
“I am guessing there will be more language to deal with non-certified educators from charter schools and other places that are exempt from certified educators,” Phillips said. “We’re going to see fewer people who are certified working in schools, like an agriculture teacher who has been a farmer all his life. If he has a misconduct at a school, they fire him, but who do they report him to? We have no jurisdiction, and they can’t be traced.”
Both charters and so-called “districts of innovation,” which give public school districts more flexibility in curriculum as well as hiring instructors, are able to bring on personnel without certification to teach.
“So someone can move from school to school if there are no reporting requirements,” Phillips said.
The language in SB 7 addresses all schools, including the state’s 186 charters. Upper level administrators can be legally held responsible for a failure to report evidence of misbehavior. But unless the infraction is a crime, those committing the infraction, without a license, can escape without much evidence of wrongdoing.
The Texas Association of Charter Schools, which claims to represent 90 percent of the state’s 275,000 charter students, did not respond to an interview request.
Tracking educators who practice outside the state license system poses a hurdle that, for now, relies on the faith that a school that does not need its educators to be licensed will duly report infractions.
If a deed meets the legal standard for prosecution, that creates a public record, said Kathleen Zimmerman, executive director of NYOS Schools, a charter operation based in Austin.
She noted that a common denominator between licensed educators and life experience instructors is participation in the state’s teacher retirement system, or TRS.
A serious ethical breach or illicit conduct could result in withholding of funds from that system, she said, although the bar is high as to what would trigger such a withholding. Even a federal conviction for six-figure theft does not ensure a TRS recipient will lose their pension.
SB 7 was passed after failed bills in previous sessions, as reports of illicit educator-student contacts have grown in the past decade — fueled by easier detection via social media.
There were 2.62 investigations per 10,000 licensed educators in 2008-2009, compared to 5.94 per 10,000 in 2016-2017, according to data gathered by David Thompson, education leadership professor at the University of Texas-San Antonio.
Sanctions for inappropriate relations, from the taking of a license to a blemish on the educator’s license, grew in that period from 58 in 2008-2009 to 272 in 2016-2017.
Because of SB 7, which lowers the requirement for reporting of such contact, “educators are probably more vulnerable than they have been in the past,” Thompson said. “SB 7 has put educators in the spotlight and this will result in more reporting.”
Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected].