While still relatively new, hiring foreign teachers to work in Georgia schools has long-term risks to students, school districts and the teachers themselves, according to experts interviewed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
School districts across the state have spent more than $52.5 million on contracts for international teachers, an AJC analysis found, mostly for hard-to-staff positions in math, science and special education.
University of California Santa Cruz education professor Lora Bartlett said there are benefits from hiring international teachers, but school districts do their students no favors when they set up a “transient” workforce of teachers bouncing from school to school, year after year.
“High turnover of teachers is a negative for schools no matter how effective any individual teacher is,” she said.
International teachers usually are sent into the most challenging classrooms in the poorest districts, and school districts see foreigners as a way to fill vacancies in these troubled schools.
Foreign teachers face unequal working conditions
Interactive Graphic: International teachers in Georgia
Exploitive labor practices targeted in other states
“Rather than attempting to address those teacher working conditions and pay scenarios, they found a source of teachers they could hire at the conditions and pay they are willing to offer,” she said.
In Georgia, districts increasingly rely on recruiting firms to find the teachers and bring them to America on H-1B visas, a three-year work visa reserved for workers who are in short supply in America. Because the teachers remain employees of the recruiting firms who brought them here, they can move between districts from year to year or return to their home countries.
Marshall Orson, a school board member in DeKalb County, which is the largest contractee of international teaching talent in the state, is worried the district’s reliance on recruiting firms to find teachers does not serve the district well in the long run.
“I am concerned that we default to finding an outside agency to find us teachers on a temporary basis,” he said. “It has to be about how we build our permanent teaching corps.”
There are other problems too. In Georgia, the largest recruiting firm is Jonesboro-based Global Teachers Research and Resources, which is the subject of a U.S. Department of Labor investigation related to allegations of unfair labor practices.
In November, some Global teachers received a letter from a Labor Department investigator asking to “discuss with you certain aspects of your employment by this firm such as the conditions of your work and the wages you were paid.” The letter says the department is investigating Global but that “does not mean that the firm has violated any law.”
This is the second time in a decade the company has been scrutinized for its labor practices. In 2011, the Labor Department found the company had not properly paid some of its teachers and forced Global to pay $75,000 in back pay.
As part of an AJC investigation, several Global teachers said they experienced periods where they were without full-time work and were made to pay expenses federal visa regulations require employers to pay. In addition, most Global teachers that spoke to the newspaper said they pay an “administrative fee” — up to 10 percent — out of their paycheck to company, which also receives between $10,000 and $11,500 per teacher from school districts every year.
The use of these firms by school districts can lead to exploitative conditions for the teachers, said Bartlett, who spent years researching her recently published book on the subject, “Migrant Teachers: How American Schools Import Labor.”
Bartlett is part of an emerging group of academics and rights advocates attempting to create a set of best practices and a code of ethics for the international recruitment of educators.
“It’s problematic to suggest that schools stop recruiting internationally. The question is how do we recruit internationally in a way that is ethical and effective for everyone involved,” she said.
Bartlett said scandals involving recruiting of international teachers around the nation have often hit the teachers hardest. Indeed, some teachers hired by Global fear bad news about company will scare away Georgia school districts. That’s a problem for teachers who depend on Global for their visa.
Global’s president and other corporate officers have not returned calls and emails seeking comment. The company’s chief operating officer, State Rep. Mike Glanton, D-Jonesboro, did talk to the AJC but said he did not know anything about the family-owned company’s finances or visa practices.
After the initial three years, the H-1B visa is renewable for another three. The teachers can pursue a “green card” for permanent lawful residence, a move that can extend their stay for years while their application is processed, but nothing is guaranteed.
Meanwhile the terms of Global’s contracts forbid the school systems from recruiting its teachers as permanent staff, while some other companies have imposed a “placement fee” if the district hires teachers who have received their “green card.”
None of this impresses Orson as a smart strategy for building math and science faculty.
At a school board meeting last summer, Orson asked about recruiting more from Teach for America, but that program provides inexperienced teachers usually teaching on a provisional certificate. Meanwhile, international teachers generally have advanced degrees and years of classroom experience in their home countries.
It’s a trade off, Orson said. But clearly immigrant teachers are not the long-term solution.
Bartlett said school districts could address this problem by directly sponsoring the H-1B visas of international teachers, rather than filtering them through a recruiting company over which they have no control. But directly sponsoring teachers is a risk some districts are unwilling to take.
In 2011, the school system in Prince George’s County, Md., paid nearly $6 million in back pay and penalties for forcing international teachers to pay fees that should have been paid by the district, illegally reducing their wages below that of similarly paid American teachers.
Orson said allegations that Global is mistreating its employees by charging them fees not allowed under the H-1B program as “additionally troubling.”
“What concerns me is, are we by extension being exposed to liability?” he said. “Beyond that we need to be doing the right things and treating our employees correctly.”
By Chris Joyner
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution