Two teachers who reportedly earned doctorates online from a Mississippi school do not deserve the pay raises that come with them because the university that awarded them is not accredited, officials with their suburban Detroit school district say.

But Jennifer Fox and Aileen Thorington say they believe their degrees and the institution that issued them–Jackson, Miss.-based Cambridge State University–are legitimate. They also argue that their district–the Huron School District in Wayne County, Mich.–had approved their studies earlier.

The conflict is an example of what is sure to become an increasingly thorny issue for school leaders, as more and more educators enroll in online degree programs for recertification or career advancement.

An arbitrator is scheduled to hear the case on Sept. 20. A favorable ruling for Fox, a high school English teacher, and Thorington, a high school math teacher, could increase their salaries by as much as $14,000 a year.

“The school board felt these degrees weren’t bona fide degrees, and we didn’t believe it appropriate to pay these teachers additional money for … degrees that were obtained from a very questionable agency,” school board Vice President Ken Appleby told the Detroit News for a July 31 story.

A teachers’ union official said Fox and Thorington did a lot of work for their doctorates, including lengthy dissertations.

“This was definitely not a pay-a-fee-and-get-your-diploma-in-the-mail [situation],” said Mary Elton, president of the Huron Education Association. “These people did not do that.”

Cambridge State has been barred from operating in Louisiana and Hawaii, according to an Associated Press (AP) report. Debbie Baer, an assistant attorney general in Louisiana’s consumer protection division, reportedly called the school a “diploma mill.”

“We realized everything they did was a complete fraud,” said Baer, who helped shut down Cambridge State’s Louisiana operation in 1998. “It was a scam on a huge scale.”

An internet search for Cambridge State University turned up a telephone number but not a web site address. When contacted by an eSchool News reporter, an unidentified man who answered at that number refused to comment.

Just two weeks before the Detroit News story appeared, Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm signed into law the Authentic Credentials in Education Act, which makes it illegal to manufacture fake academic credentials or use them to obtain a job, promotion, or loan.

Fox and Thorington clearly outlined their study plans to district officials, who raised no objections, Elton said.

Superintendent Thomas Hosler acknowledged the district failed to check out the school first. “It’s one of those situations where I wish we could hit ‘rewind’ and go back and check that,” he said. “I think the teachers made assumptions, and I think the district made assumptions.”

The Huron incident isn’t the first time educators have come under the spotlight for receiving questionable online degrees. Last year, the Georgia Professional Standards Commission launched an investigation into 11 educators in that state who claimed to have earned degrees from St. Regis University, an online school reportedly based in Liberia that investigators said sells degrees without requiring any coursework. (See “Teachers try fishy online degrees.”)

In response to what it perceives as a swath of phony online degree programs that target students, educators, and other professionals, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) earlier this year unveiled a web site, www.ope.ed.gov/accreditation, where school leaders and other employers can check applicants’ or staff members’ credentials against a master list of accredited colleges, universities, and career or vocational schools. (See “Feds fight phony online degrees.”)

Cambridge State University does not appear in ED’s database of accredited institutions–but it does appear on a list of non-accredited schools published by the Michigan Department of Civil Service, which says it will not recognize degrees conferred by such institutions.

Links:

ED’s “Institution Accreditation” web site
http://www.ope.ed.gov/accreditation

Michigan Department of Civil Service: Non-Accredited Schools
http://www.michigan.gov/documents/ Non-accreditedSchools_78090_7.pdf