Louisiana needs a new state law to ensure that public school teachers undergo thorough criminal background checks, the president of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education said.
Others said while the conversation is worth having, there are ample checks in place now to keep teachers who have run afoul of the law out of both traditional and public charter schools.
Gary Jones, president of BESE, raised the issue during a committee meeting Tuesday when teachers who have lost their certification ask the state to have them returned. Certified teachers have to earn a college degree, finish with at least a 2.5 grade-point-average and pass a national teacher exam.
Teachers at traditional public schools, unlike charters, are required to be certified.
Under questioning by Jones, one teacher said she was in her second year at a charter school before she was asked about a drug-related conviction from years earlier.
"That is just the problem I have," he said.
In an interview after the meeting, Jones said he is concerned that a teacher who loses his or her certification in a traditional public school, usually for breaking the law, can then get hired at a charter school "without anything happening."
Jones said while background checks are required, there is no penalty for not doing so.
One option, he said, would be to have a registry of teachers who have lost their certification.
"That is the piece that is missing from the law," said Jones, a former superintendent and teacher who lives in Alexandria.
In another case, he said, a teacher/coach at a traditional public school had been there for three or four years before it was discovered that he had lost his teaching license a decade earlier.
"The question I have is how many of those do we not even know about," Jones said.
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Prospective teachers have to undergo criminal background checks before they are hired.
Applicants who have been convicted of a wide range of felonies, including crimes against children and violent offenses, cannot be hired by traditional or public charter schools.
In addition, BESE sets a higher bar for teachers to clear a criminal background check to be certified.
That means a teacher applicant could have a criminal violation on their record that would allow them to pass the state's background check for employment but not be eligible for certification.
The two standards may be part of the problem, officials said, and finding a way to have them dovetail more may be worth pursuing.
Jones is having talks with officials of the state Department of Education on the issue.
The state has about 700,000 public school students.
Charter schools are public schools run by nongovernmental boards and without many of the rules required in traditional public schools.
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About 80,000 students attend Louisiana's 145 charter schools.
Caroline Roemer, executive director of the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools, said she would welcome talks on the issue.
"I would say that, first, no, charter schools are not full of felons," Roemer said. "And just like traditional public schools we follow the law regarding criminal background checks.
"If we don't think the current laws are working for public schools we will be the first ones at the table to work with Mr. Jones, BESE and everybody else to figure out is there a problem and how can we best resolve it as quickly as possible," Roemer said.
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She said a majority of charter school teachers are certified.
Debbie Meaux, president of the Louisiana Association of Educators and Cynthia Posey, legislative and political director for the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, said the issue points up the need to treat traditional and charter schools the same.