WASHINGTON (AP) - Public schools would be barred from employing teachers and other workers convicted of sexual offenses against children or other violent crimes under a bill the House approved Tuesday.
The measure would require school systems to check state and federal criminal records for employees with unsupervised access to elementary and secondary school students, and for people seeking those jobs. Workers refusing to submit to the checks would not be allowed to have school positions.
A 2010 report by the Government Accountability Office, the auditing arm of Congress, cited one estimate that there are 620,000 convicted sex offenders in the U.S.
It also found that state laws on the employment of sex offenders in schools vary. Some require less stringent background checks than others, and they differ on how people with past convictions are treated, such as whether they are fired or lose their teaching license.
The bill has run into objections from major teachers' unions like the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. In letters to lawmakers, their criticisms included concerns that the measure might jeopardize workers' protections under union contracts.
In addition, the NEA wrote that criminal background checks "often have a huge, racially disparate impact" - a reference to critics' complaints that minorities make up a disproportionately high proportion of people convicted of crimes.
Despite those concerns, the House approved the measure by voice vote.
"Keeping children safe is not a partisan issue," said the chief sponsor, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif. "It's a moral obligation."
"Every school employee, from the cafeteria workers to the administrators, to janitors to the teachers, principals and librarians, that every one" is subject to background checks including the FBI fingerprint indentification system to the national sex offender registry, said Rep. Todd Rokita, R-Ind.
No one said they opposed the bill. But Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., said that by imposing lifetime bans and ignoring the ability of people to overcome criminal backgrounds, "We do run the risk of doing a good thing, but doing too much of a thing." He said he'd continue seeking changes in the measure as it moves through Congress.
The measure will need approval from the Senate. It is expected to be considered there in coming months as part of a broad overhaul of federal laws on elementary and secondary schools.
The bill would forbid public schools to employ people convicted of crimes against children including pornography, or of felonies including murder, rape, spousal abuse or kidnapping. It would bar school districts and state education agencies from transferring workers who have engaged in sexual misconduct with minors to another location.
The measure would also apply to contractors who work at schools.
Employees with violations would be allowed to appeal, but they could not work during the appeals process.