The Spokesman-Review
March 3, 2005

Bill to verify teaching credentials dies in Senate
Degrees offered by diploma mills will be checked by districts, not state

Richard Roesler
Staff writer

(posted with permission of the Spokesman-Review)

OLYMPIA - Despite testimony that several teachers and school administrators have used phony diplomas to collect tens of thousands of dollars in extra pay, a bill to require state officials to check such credentials died in a Senate committee last Wednesday.

"There's a principle involved, and we need to be principled in our education," said Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, arguing for his bill Thursday morning.

The state gives pay increases to teachers who get additional training or degrees. But checking the legitimacy of those degrees is left to the state's 296 school districts, some of them tiny. Schoesler's bill, SB 5634, would have required the state Superintendent of Public Instruction's office to verify that the credits or degrees came from an accredited college.

An investigation of about one-fifth of the state's school districts by the conservative Evergreen Freedom Foundation last year found six educators who'd claimed extra pay on the basis of credentials from unaccredited institutions. Some, according to EFF, were so-called diploma mills, offering people degrees for little or no serious coursework.

A three-year audit of the Pateros School District this year determined that one employee had drawn $35,365 in "unearned salary and benefits" with a degree from an unaccredited foreign university.

Such people "are essentially cheating the system," Schoesler said. "It's unfair to taxpayers and it's unfair to the vast majority of teachers who earned their credits or degrees by playing by the rules."

His bill would have also ordered a $300 fine for anyone submitting unaccredited coursework to get a pay increase. They would also have to reimburse the school district for any salary overpayments.

Other states are looking at the same problem. In 2002, according to a report last year by EFF, three Oregon teachers had their credentials revoked after claiming to hold degrees from La Salle University in Louisiana, a now-defunct diploma mill not related to the accredited La Salle in Pennsylvania.

In an audit of 130,000 teachers in Georgia two years ago, 11 were found to have degrees from St. Regis University, a Spokane-based diploma mill that claimed, apparently erroneously, to be accredited by the African nation of Liberia. A Mead woman, her daughter and three business associates who run St. Regis University were named in a lawsuit in December by Regis University, a Jesuit school in Denver who said its reputation is being harmed by bogus St. Regis degrees. The 11 Georgia teachers have been barred from teaching in Georgia.

Similar investigations, according to EFF, have been launched in Texas, California, Hawaii, the United Kingdom, Australia and India. Using an illegitimate degree to obtain a job or promotion is illegal in North Dakota, Nevada, Indiana, New Jersey, Illinois and Oregon, according to EFF researcher Sarah Carrico.

Schoesler's bill was opposed by the state teachers' union, the Washington Education Association. Teachers are already required to get their bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees from accredited institutions, said WEA lobbyist Lucinda Young. It is the responsibility of school districts to check those credentials.

Teachers must also state that they received their credits from an accredited institution, she said. Lying is a violation of educators' code of professional conduct, which can lead to suspension or revocation of teaching credentials.

The union agrees that teachers should go to accredited universities, she said, but she told lawmakers that the bill is a heavy-handed approach to a small problem. It could also have unintended consequences for teachers who get their extra training through courses at local educational service districts.

"We have very few school districts where this is happening," Young said. "I'm not sure it (the bill) is necessary."