Ga. Panel Tightens Language in Ethics Code for Educators

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A Georgia panel is putting the finishing touches this fall on a new code of ethics for educators, after addressing complaints from statewide education groups that the document leaves too much room for interpretation.

Drafted by the Professional Practices Commission--an independent panel responsible under a 10-year-old state law for enforcing a behavioral code for certified educators--the document includes professional principles and standards of conduct covering everything from sexual harassment to fraud.

Educators who violate the mandates in the code could have their certification revoked by the state, explained James J. Carter, the head of the 17-member commission. All the members are practicing educators who were nominated by statewide professional groups and appointed by the state board of education.

Georgia is one of only a few states that have developed similar guidelines for teachers and administrators.

The Washington State Board of Education, for example, developed a code of ethics for educators several years ago that dealt specifically with sexual misconduct and abuse. (See Education Week, Aug. 3, 1988, and Jan. 31, 1990.)

In addition, states such as Texas and New Jersey have adopted stringent conflict-of-interest standards for school officials. (See Education Week, Sept. 22, 1993.)

Those conflict-of-interest rules are largely focused on school board members and administrators with financial decisionmaking authority, however, while the Georgia code would set ethical standards for all professional educators, including classroom teachers.

Beyond 'Thou Shalt Not'

Guidelines adopted by states, unions, or other groups are often vague and difficult to enforce, observed Joanne Kogan, a spokeswoman for the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

Moreover, the Georgia proposal goes even farther by seeking to create principles for proper behavior by educators, rather than just establishing prohibitions on unethical activities.

"This code is somewhat novel because it's designed to give instruction to educators, instead of commandments such as, 'Thou shalt not do this,' or 'Thou shalt not do that,''' Mr. Carter said.

"All of us wanted some kind of document that would solve problems before they became problems,'' he added.

Several teachers' groups and school officials' associations, however, expressed concern that the commission overstepped its boundaries when it drafted the code.

The Georgia Association of Educators was one of the chief critics of the panel's first draft of the new guidelines.

For example, the teachers' group objected to a proposed provision stating that educators should "not engage in conduct in school or in any public place which is inconsistent with the standards of acceptable behavior in the community,'' according to Matthew Billups, a lawyer for the 30,000-member organization.

The G.A.E. also criticized the commission's suggestion that educators "treat all school-age children as if they were their own student,'' arguing that the language was overly broad and unenforceable.

The commission later removed both provisions and revised several other points pertaining to educators' relationships with students both in and outside the classroom.

"The language before was a little loose,'' Mr. Carter acknowledged. "Some of the requirements were overly broad and would probably not stand up to constitutional law.''

But the new draft is "concise to the extent that we think we have a document we can live with,'' he said.

Further Changes Sought

Last week, however, the G.A.E. was still pushing for changes in at least two of the provisions in the new draft, including one that defines as "unethical'' an educator's refusal to provide material information in the course of an inquiry by a school district or the commission.

Mr. Billups said the clause would violate teachers' rights by encouraging "self-incrimination.''

In addition, the union is opposing a provision requiring teachers to seek authorization from the local board of education before accepting pay for tutoring students outside of class.

Even so, Mr. Billups continued, G.A.E. officials are not unhappy with the way the process has worked.

"We're not satisfied completely,'' he said, "but we're gratified by the commission's willingness to listen to suggestions from other quarters.''

After hearings are held on the revised draft, a final code will probably be adopted by early next year, Mr. Carter said.

Vol. 13, Issue 09

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