Why compacts?

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The issues of states’ rights, uniformity of criteria, and mobility and portability related to the regulation of the professions are not new. Indeed, the Association of Social Work Boards was originally created to promote uniformity among and between its member boards, government agencies legislatively created and delegated with the authority to regulate the profession of social work in the interest of public protection. ASWB’s signature program is the development, administration, scoring, and maintenance of entry-level competence examinations used by member boards as one criterion of licensure eligibility. To promote uniformity, the ASWB examinations are validated using statistics gathered from a United States/Canadian cohort to allow all member boards to rely on the same instrument as a valid measure of competence. ASWB uses multiple forms of the examinations, equating methods, and other means of drawing from an extensive item bank following psychometric measures and industry standards. These steps provide security and legal defensibility to the program.

Counsel's column

photograph of Dale Atkinson
Dale Atkinson is a partner with the Illinois law firm that is counsel to ASWB.

Promoting uniformity is premised upon a respect for the rights of the states to regulate the professions as determined necessary. The U.S. Constitution reserves to the states those powers not specifically granted to the federal government. Legal precedent recognizes these rights to include the regulation of the professions. As a result, each state regulates the professions, including social work, pursuant to legislation enacted state by state, generally referred to as practice acts.

Legal and political pressures have focused on licensure as a perceived barrier to pursuit of a chosen livelihood. Some academics argue that licensure is unnecessary. These arguments center around economic theories showing how state-based licensure impedes trade, occupation, and professional opportunities. They contend that education, experience, examinations, and criminal background/good moral character criteria thwart economic development and unfairly disadvantage segments of the population. While some argue for deregulating the professions, others address the disparities and redundancies of a state-based licensure system that mandates becoming licensed in multiple states. These arguments emphasize the fact that “social work practice is social work practice” and licensure in multiple states creates unwieldy requirements involving eligibility criteria, significant fees, and overwhelming continuing education hours for license renewal.

With technological advancements, social workers can now engage in practice through electronic means on an intrastate, interstate, and international basis. Consumers of social work services are equally mobile. Practice without physical presence creates numerous legal and practical issues, including the fundamental questions of where practice occurs and where the practitioner must be licensed.

The COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with its relaxation of some practice regulations, has contributed to an increased scrutiny of state-based licensure. Many question whether the relaxed regulations should become permanent with regard to the ability to practice social work (and other professions) remotely. Remote practice likely entails practice across state and international borders, and solutions to the complexities and redundancies of state-by-state licensure are being explored. One suggestion to address the mobility and portability of practice, practitioners, and consumers is an interstate compact. Recently, numerous ASWB-like organizations have explored the use of compacts to provide licensees with rights to practice in those states that belong to the compact.

In the realm of professional licensure, a compact would likely cover aspects of licensure, scope of practice, confidentiality, complaint processes, investigations, sanctions, and data management and sharing. Regarding licensure, many decisions will be negotiated in the compact development process surrounding the need for one or multiple licenses. The development and implementation of a compact involves an in-depth analysis of the stated goals and consideration of stakeholder needs. Compacts are legislatively enacted state by state and are thus subject to relevant political pressures. Finding common ground is critical to determining an appropriate approach to portability, mobility, and interstate practice.

Definition: Interstate compact

An interstate compact is an agreement between two or more states that is enacted into law through legislative action by those states wishing to participate in the compact. Each compact state enacts the same legislation into law to provide for consistency in language and enforcement.

Compacts are contracts between states that affect the rights and responsibilities of participating states, practitioners, and consumers. A compact typically includes provisions regarding its purpose and scope, sources of funding, and other contract terms like dispute resolution, enforcement, termination of the compact, or withdrawal of a member. In some cases, the compact will call for the establishment of an interstate agency to administer the compact. Interstate compacts and the agencies formed to administer them address issues including conservation and resource management, civil defense, emergency management, law enforcement, transportation, and taxes.