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Miller Wants To Shake Up Teacher-Investigation Agency

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Prompted by a backlog of cases at the agency responsible for investigating teacher misconduct in Georgia, Gov. Zell Miller is pushing legislation that would do away with the agency and turn its duties over to another state office.

The investigative agency, the Professional Practices Commission, came under fire last year after The Associated Press uncovered names of convicted criminals who were still certified to teach in Georgia. According to the AP, an incarcerated child molester and a high school guidance counselor who allegedly raped a student were among those certified to teach.

Commission officials have blamed the problems on a shortage of investigators. The office now has an 18-month backlog of investigations. In 1997, the PPC handled more than 600 cases.

"They said they needed more money and more staff," Rick Dent, a spokesman for the Democratic governor, said last week. "The governor doesn't necessarily believe that."

Under the proposed bill, which received its first hearing last week before the Senate education committee, the Professional Practices Commission would be abolished and its functions would be rolled over to the Professional Standards Commission, which issues teaching certificates in the state.

With a staff of 40, the PSC also accredits teacher education programs in Georgia, conducts teacher testing, and takes final action on sanction recommendations made by the PPC.

In roughly two-thirds of the cases, teachers are allowed to keep their certificates either because the accusations are not serious enough to merit such a punishment or because the charges are never substantiated, said Peggy Torrey, the executive director of the PSC.

Many cases do not involve allegations of criminal activity, but instead focus on possible ethical violations, such as falsifying student records.

Ms. Torrey said she didn't know whether the 10 staff members at the PPC would be transferred to her offices.

Licensing Standards

Gov. Miller has already proposed a fiscal 1999 budget that includes $1.1 million in funding for the PPC. If the bill passes, that money will simply be shifted to the standards commission by executive order, Mr. Dent said. The changes would take place July 1.

The proposed funding for the PSC for fiscal 1999 is $3.9 million, a 3 percent drop from fiscal 1998, according to Ms. Torrey.

In proposing to eliminate the Professional Practices Commission, the governor looked to other professions that the state licenses, such as insurance and nursing. Currently, teachers are the only professionals licensed by one authority and monitored by another.

Ms. Torrey of the standards commission said she has been meeting with leaders from some of the other licensing boards and talking with other "PPC-type" organizations around the nation.

Across the country, there is a movement toward the creation of professional-standards boards for teachers, said Kathy Christie, a policy analyst at the Education Commission of the States in Denver. But the responsibilities of those boards vary from state to state, she added. In some states, departments of education still handle everything associated with teaching certificates.

Curtis Kingsley, the assistant director of the PPC, said neither he nor James Carter, the executive director, had any comment about the governor's plan.

Left Hanging

But reaction from the field to the proposed change has been generally positive.

"There's a certain logic to it," said Tim Callahan, a spokesman for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, a nonunion group.

He said he has often heard criticism about the time it takes for a complaint against a teacher or other school employee to work its way through both commissions.

"For a teacher that is caught up in that, their whole career is hanging in the balance," he said.

He attributed some problems at the PPC to an "explosion of growth" in the teaching ranks in Georgia in recent years. "I don't think anyone is trying to do a poor job over there."

Mr. Miller's bill would set a 60-day time limit for a preliminary investigation of a teacher and another 60-day limit for the standards commission to decide whether the case should be dismissed.

The bill also spells out the responsibilities that school boards, administrators, and teachers have to report any suspected wrongdoing by teachers and other certified personnel.

Gary Ashley, the executive director of the Georgia School Boards Association, said his group would support the governor's proposal "if combining the two agencies is going to result in a more efficient and more equitable organization for certification, and, of course, to ensure due process."

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