Ex-Prostitutes Still Can't Teach in Oregon

A handful of times in the last few years, the members of the Oregon commission charged with determining who will get a license to teach in the state's public schools have found themselves faced with an application from a former prostitute.

But under state law, commissioners have had to turn down the applications, regardless of any potentially mitigating circumstances.

Unlike in the neighboring states of California, Nevada, Idaho and Washington, in Oregon, it doesn't matter if the prostitution conviction (search) came at a tender age, if the woman herself was a victim of sexual abuse or forced into prostitution, or if she has since managed to right herself and her life.

Now, a bill that would have brought Oregon's policies in line with its border states has died in the state Senate, after strong signals that even if had made it past the full body of senators, it would not have survived in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.

"You don't get past the headline. You just don't get past it," said Dave Mowry, an aide to Rep. Linda Flores (search), R-Clackamas, who chairs the House Education Committee, where the bill would have landed had it cleared the state Senate.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Margaret Carter (search), D-Portland, would have allowed a school district to employ a woman convicted of prostitution if at least seven years had passed since the conviction, and if she has not been convicted of any other crime in the interim.

It would not have given a blanket okay to all teacher applicants with a prostitution conviction on their record, but instead would have allowed members of the Oregon Teacher Standards and Practices Commission (search) to evaluate each application on a case-by-case basis — the current practice in California, Washington, Nevada and Idaho.

"Many of these women go to school and turn their lives around," Carter said. "They get a job and then one day someone comes and taps them on the shoulder and says, 'We found out you were involved in prostitution, and we've got to let you go from your job.' This is a misdemeanor crime, and yet we don't want to forgive these women and let them live lives of economic stability."

The proposal did pass out of the Senate Education Committee with support from Republican Sen. Charles Starr of Hillsboro, but Carter then made a motion to send it back to committee.

"I could not have gotten enough votes on the Senate floor because my colleagues were afraid that people were going to be calling them and saying, "You're going to be putting prostitutes in the schools,"' Carter said.

Carter said she also had been told that even if the bill passed in the Senate, the House would refuse to take it up.

"Rather than cause a big fight on the floor under those circumstances, I just took it back," she said.

Oregon law prohibits anyone who has been convicted of a lengthy list of felony crimes, including murder, kidnapping, rape, sodomy and incest, from receiving a teaching license, said Vickie Chamberlain, the director of the teacher standards commission.

In Nevada, where prostitutition is legal in some counties, teacher applicants with prostitution arrests are asked to turn in relevant court documents, plus verification that any community service or probation sentences were completed, said Donna Brothers, the state's supervisor for teacher licensing.

"We don't automatically exclude them, unless it involved a child," she said.

Washington has no legal prostitution, but the rules are similar there, said Kim Schmanke, a spokeswoman for the state Superintendent for Public Instruction.

"We look into the circumstances of that particular conviction or arrest to figure out how it would impact their ability to uphold the moral and professional standards we hold for teachers," she said.

Keith Potter, an investigator for the Idaho Professional Standards Commission, said he thought Oregon's current stringent regulations were the exception, rather than the rule.

"Some states are firm that any felony convictions take you out of it, but most go on a case-by-case basis," he said. "If someone changes their life around, from when they were young and dumb, why deny them that opportunity?"

Former prostitutes applying for teaching licenses is not "frequent," said Mary Armstrong, general counsel to the California Commission on Teacher Credentials — but she has seen several cases in the past few years, she said.

Carter said she plans to resubmit the bill in the 2007 session.

"I'm a little disappointed in myself that I didn't just push it through," she said.