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N.C. Opinions: Greensboro

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An inconsistent curiosity in the General Assembly

From an editorial Thursday in the Greensboro News & Record:

Inquiring minds in Raleigh want to know ... at least some of the time.

For instance, based on pending legislation in the General Assembly, state Republican lawmakers want to know the criminal histories of citizens who receive federal assistance. But are they equally curious about the criminal history of someone who might teach your son or daughter in a charter school? Apparently not.

Remember, a Republican-backed bill that would set up a separate oversight board for charter schools includes a provision that removes any requirement that these schools conduct background checks of job applicants. Meanwhile, another bill would ramp up scrutiny of the welfare rolls by requiring local social services departments to conduct background checks of anyone who receives Food and Nutrition Assistance (food stamps) or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which involves cash payments.

An outstanding warrant for a felony charge or a probation or parole violation disqualifies a person from such programs. As it is now, county social service departments depend on those applicants’ honesty for an accurate answer.

This bill would make certain by mandating a formal background check for each applicant. And it would compel these agencies to let law enforcement know of anyone who has an outstanding warrant.

On the surface, this sounds good. “This would save the state money by making sure that the aid goes to those law-abiding citizens first, those who most need it,” the bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Dean Arp, a Monroe Republican, recently told a House committee.

But how much would the screening cost social service agencies? And who would pay those bills? No one had the answer in that meeting. But the costs could range from $25 to nearly $40 per client and could total hundreds of thousands of dollars, especially in a place like Greensboro, where the poverty rate is 20 percent.

Then there’s the question of collateral damage. Would such a law wind up affecting innocent and hungry children whose parents happen to have run afoul of the law? Probably.

So the choice facing lawmakers is whether this measure would be worth the time and expense. And whether the small amount of good it might do would be outweighed by the unintended consequences. The answer seems obvious.

Background checks for employees in the charter schools bill, however, should be restored. No one wants to have to explain someday why somebody should have known a job applicant posed a threat to the safety of children.

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