By John Finnerty
CNHI Capitol Correspondent
In January, the state Department of Education Professional Standards and Practice Commission opened an investigation into allegations that Kevin DeFrancesco, a teacher in Jamestown Area School District, had sent explicit text messages to two female students – ages 13 and 14.
In March, the commission suspended DeFrancesco’s license. In November, DeFrancesco, 29, was sentenced to 27 months in prison.
Last July, the state commission opened an investigation into allegations against Michael Zack, a substitute teacher in Northumberland County, accusing him of similar conduct with two girls at Shamokin High School.
A month later, the commission suspended Zack’s teaching license. Zack, 24, was sentenced last month to six months’ house arrest and must register as a Megan’s Law offender.
Shane Putorek, 27, from Cambria County, a music teacher in the Harmony Area School District, was arrested last May on charges alleging he raped a 15-year-old boy. He is awaiting trial. Putorek surrendered his license before the commission needed to take any action, PDE records show.
These are just three of 563 misconduct investigations opened against teachers in Pennsylvania last year, more than double the number reported in each of the prior four years.
Gov. Tom Corbett’s budget includes a plan to increase the cost of a license for a would-be teacher by one-third to cover the cost of hiring staff to deal with the dramatic increase in allegations of teacher misconduct.
The state Department of Education gets about 36,000 new applications for licenses each year – including 21,000 level I certificates for brand-new teachers and 14,000 certificates for level II teachers, who have completed the initial training required for level I teachers, according to Tim Eller, a department spokesman
The Department of Education plans to hire an additional attorney and a law clerk, while the Professional Standards and Practices Commission will also get another attorney and a law clerk, Eller said.
While the allegations of sexual misconduct grab most of the headlines, Eller said there appear to be a number of other factors at play, including the state’s investigation into allegations of widespread cheating by teachers during state standardized tests.
A Pennsylvania State Education Association spokesman said the teachers union frowns on cheating but maintains the Corbett administration has suggested the problems are more widespread than they actually are.
“Secretary (Ronald) Tomalis seemed to suggest that the scrutiny had contributed to a statewide drop in test scores,” said Wythe Keever of the PSEA. “It is one thing to say that you have evidence that there was cheating involving 100 teachers, but it’s another thing to say thousands across school districts were involved in a conspiracy to inflate test scores.”
There are about 120,000 public school teachers in Pennsylvania.
Even with the dramatic increase in allegations, complaints about teacher misconduct are still less common than similar complaints about licensed professionals in other fields. There are more than 900,000 professionals employed in jobs that require licenses governed by boards overseen by the Department of State, said Ron Ruman, a Department of State spokesman.
Last year, there were 3,790 investigations opened against individuals employed in fields overseen by one of the 28 boards – including professions in such wide-ranging fields as doctors, nurses, dentists, architects, cosmetologists, real estate agents, social workers, car sales people and veterinarians.
In 2012, there was one investigation for every 237 licensed professionals, compared to one complaint per 213 teachers.