Florida Chief Seeks Data on Revocation of Teacher Licenses

By Lynn Olson — October 24, 1984 10 min read
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The commissioner of education in Florida, where 70 percent of the 15,000 applicants for new teaching certificates each year come from out of state, has asked school chiefs across the country to help improve interstate information-sharing on teachers whose licenses have been revoked.

In a letter to his colleagues, Commissioner Ralph D. Turlington noted that increasing concern about child abuse should spur officials to improve the interstate information system regarding teachers who have lost their licenses for reasons that range from incompetence and fraud to the physical or sexual abuse of children.

“We have got to improve the communication of this information to prevent these individuals from simply moving from one state to another and entering our classrooms undetected,” said Mr. Turlington, who has asked that the issue be placed on the agenda of the annual meeting of the Council of Chief State School Officers next month.

The problem of teachers who move on to teach in another state after having had their license revoked elsewhere attracted attention in Florida this fall following a nationwide survey of teacher certification by a local newspaper reporter. Mark Vogler, a reporter for The News Chief in Winter Haven, surveyed education officials in 49states. He found that the states had revoked a total of 843 teaching certificates in the last five years but that Florida’s education department was notified of only 556 revocations--or about 67 percent.

Garfield Wilson, Florida’s director of teacher education, certification, and staff development, has also written a letter to directors of teacher certification in 49 states asking them to help solve the interstate communication problem.

“You could have a number of reasons for the revocation of a teaching certificate, ranging from incompetence to immorality to fraud to child abuse,” said Frank A. Mirabella, chief Cabinet aide and public-infor-Continued on Page 16

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mation officer for Mr. Turlington. “For a person to have committed one of these acts in a state and move and obtain a license to teach in another state would be a very, very serious breach. It’s incumbent upon us to have a system where that type of information is shared by states.”

Mr. Mirabella and others noted, however, that the problem of teachers who have engaged in some form of child abuse is not widespread. Less than 1 percent of school employees are involved in child abuse, according to the National Council of Child Abuse’s analysis of police statistics, said Charles T. Williams, director of human and civil rights for the National Education Association.

‘Bad Apples’

The News Chief’s series, “Bad Apples of Education: A National Problem,” focused on flaws in teacher-certification programs that “could enable individuals with criminal backgrounds to gain easy access to classrooms throughout the nation.”

Based on telephone interviews and written questionnaires sent to officials in 49 states, and an investigation covering 14 East Coast states, Mr. Vogler concluded that:

Most states do not conduct a thorough screening of applicants for teaching certificates.

There is widespread, poor handling of teacher-misconduct cases.

Many school districts tend to allow teachers who are suspected of misconduct to resign without reporting the case to officials within their state’s department of education.

Most states seldom revoke teachers’ certificates. Although Florida revoked 61 certificates and suspended 6 more in fiscal 1983, he found, 10 states did not revoke any certificates during the last five years, and 17 others revoked fewer than five certificates each during that period.

Law Limits Action

Lousiana, for example, has only revoked certificates for about four years, according to Robert G. Crew, director of higher education and teacher certification for the state’s education department. It has only revoked three or four certificates in that time, since state law limits revocations to instances of fraud (such as false college transcripts or recommendations). The state is now proposing a policy, which should become final in the next few months, that would allow the revocation of certificates of teachers who have been convicted of a felony.

According to Mr. Vogler, at least 25 states do not have a centralized system for reporting teacher misconduct because they believe that such problems are a local issue. He found that some states could not provide information on the number of licenses they had revoked. And he concluded that poor communication among states allows unfit teachers to continue in the profession.

Nine out of 10 certification officers, he added, said there could be better communication between states regarding the revocation of teachers’ licenses.

Information-Sharing Weak

Florida is one of 32 states that participate in a voluntary, interstate agreement to share informa-tion about the revocation of teaching certificates, according to Mr. Wilson. Most of the states that are not in the pact have pledged to send Florida such information, he added. And Florida sends information out to all 50 states almost on a monthly basis.

“We have a computer file on revocations, and the first thing we do when we get an application in [for a teaching certificate] is to check it against our file to see if the certificate has been revoked in other states,” Mr. Wilson said. He added that until Mr. Vogler’s survey, “We thought that this file was up-to-date, because we post everything that we get from states.”

Florida receives applications for some 50,000 certificates a year--including renewals, new applicants, and applications for substitute teachers--and issues between 40,000 and 45,000. It revokes between 100 and 150 certificates each year. State officials say that while that percentage is small when compared with the nearly 90,000 individuals teaching in Florida’s public schools, and most of those licenses are revoked for causes other than child abuse or molestation, even one undetected teacher who has been convicted of child abuse or sexual molestation is one too many.

Donald L. Griesheimer, executive director of the state education-practices commission, pointed to a recent instance in which a teacher had his New York State license revoked for pedophilia, moved to Florida and was hired in St. Lucie’s County. That teacher was later dismissed for the same reason, he said.

Both he and Mr. Wilson said Florida has had problems with teachers who lied about their criminal records when applying for a teaching certificate. Legislators recently approved a bill requiring fingerprinting of all prospective teachers so officials can check for criminal records. (See Education Week, May 9, 1984.)

Education officials from a number of states say the increasing mobility of teachers, and of society in general, has made them more aware of the problem of incompetent, or even dangerous, teachers who cross state lines. They add that the problem may be particularly acute in growing, sunbelt states like Florida.

Few Revocations Noted

Mr. Wilson, the certification director, said other states have already responded to his concern that Florida’s information about revocations in their states is outdated. “The letters are saying that we do, indeed, have you on our mailing list, but we revoke very few certificates, so you might not have heard from us in several years.”

“I’m not going to comment about how other states do their business, but I know that in this state ... it’s easier to allow an individual to simply resign and slip on down the road” than to revoke his or her certificate, Mr. Griesheimer said. “That’s true all over the country. It’s cheaper, and it’s less publicity.”

Mr. Vogler found that: an average of one out of three states do not ask applicants for teaching certificates whether they have ever had a teaching license revoked; three out of four states do not penalize applicants for falsifying information on their application forms, and only five states conduct investigations to see if applicants are telling the truth; and most states will not investigate alleged misconduct by a teacher unless the teacher has a record of crim-inal convictions. He also found that virtually no criminal-background checks are included in the teacher-certification process.

The Problem in Illinois

Barry H. Weiss, manager of the certification and placement section of the Illinois State Board of Education stated that the number of revocations in his state has increased since 1979, when the state passed a new law making felony convictions for drug- or sex-related crimes, as well as certain misdemeanors, like indecent exposure, grounds for permanent revocation of a teaching license and for automatic suspension of a certificate.

A total of 15 such revocations have occurred since 1979, he said. Before that, most revocations were related to contract violations.

Mr. Weiss has been working to redo Illinois’s certificate application so that it indicates that a background check will be conducted for a criminal record. He is checking with the board’s legal advisors and with the state’s department of law enforcement regarding that option.

Mr. Weiss noted that he relies on the cooperation of local school boards and school officials for information. Local school districts are not mandated to report to the state instances of teachers who are involved in a criminal offense.

“I would like to be in a position to be able to say rather strongly what the situation is in Illinois,” he said. “I don’t have that information now.”

In New York, out-of-state applicants account for about one-third of all those applying for teaching certi-ficates each year, said Charles C. Mackey, supervisor of teacher education in the state education department.

Of the 150,000 to 200,000 applicants for all certificates, 50 at most are discovered to have lied on their applications, he noted.

Mr. Mackey, who has been a member of the National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification for 21 years and was president of that organization in 1980-81, said that the organization had long “attempted to get in place ... a good information system on revocations or annulments of certificates in every state.

“But up to now, it’s been a voluntary process,” he said.

He suggested that there may not be any way to mandate states to provide that information across state borders.

Interstate communication about the revocation of teachers’ licenses or the alleged misconduct of teachers raises questions about the violation of individual privacy and the rights of states to make that information known, he said.

More Effective Screening.

Mr. Williams of the nea said that an alternative to the use of fingerprinting or other approaches that involve “indicting a whole class of folks” would be for school districts to develop more effective employee-screening techniques.

“This is one of the areas you have to be careful with,” agreed John F. Brown, executive director for the Commission on Teacher Credentialing for California, “because teachers do have due-process rights.”

“I don’t think it’s appropriate for the state itself to get involved [in checking teacher’s backgrounds],” said Mr. Williams, “but in terms of a local school district that wants to run a check on a potential employee, I think that is appropriate. It’s done now. It’s just that some administrators are not very thorough.”

Mr. Williams noted that fingerprinting and other checks of a possible criminal background could “create the notion that teachers are more potentially a criminal group than other folks.” He added that some records on criminal data are not accurate and could lead to teachers being wrongfully maligned.

In addition, the information a state obtained could be used for purposes other than criminal checks, Mr. Williams argued, and could lead to discrimination on the basis of religious preferences or politics.

Felons and Incompetents

In California, teachers coming into the state have to go through an fbi check--as they now will in Florida. “That’s probably the biggest deterrent that we have working for us,” Mr. Brown said.

But he noted that a growing concern for all states will be sharing information about incompetent teachers. “It’s hard to document incompetence,” noted Mr. Brown, “but the pressure on school systems and administrators is to begin to do that. You know, the person with the criminal record is obvious--so obvious, it’s not hard to figure out. It’s the person that may be incompetent, that no one sees, that I think is as dangerous in many ways.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 24, 1984 edition of Education Week as Florida Chief Seeks Data on Revocation of Teacher Licenses


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