Growing Trend: Arizona School Districts Hiring Foreign Teachers on Temporary Guest Worker Visas

The press has widely reported teachers walking out in the past week due to desperate conditions in the public schools of Arizona and Colorado.

In a new blockbuster follow up report for the NY Times Dana Goldstein digs into into another symptom of desperation in Arizona’s poorest school districts. Arizona school districts have rapidly expanded the practice of recruiting school teachers from abroad on J-1 temporary guest worker visas. Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that desperate districts, unable to pay competitive salaries to the state’s college educated and certified teachers, should be recruiting teachers willing to come from the Philippines for three-year stints.

Goldstein describes the program: “The latest wave of foreign workers sweeping into American jobs brought Donato Soberano from the Philippines to Arizona two years ago. He had to pay thousands of dollars to a job broker and lived for a time in an apartment with five other Filipino workers. The lure is the pay—10 times more than what he made doing the same work back home. But Mr. Soberano is not a hospitality worker or a home health aide. He is in another line of work that increasingly pays too little to attract enough Americans: Mr. Soberano is a public school teacher.”

Goldstein continues: “Among the latest states hit by the protests is Arizona, where teacher pay is more than $10,000 below the national average of $59,000 per year. The Pendergast Elementary School District, where Mr. Soberano works, has recruited more than 50 teachers from the Philippines since 2015. They hold J-1 visas, which allow them to work temporarily in the United States, like au pairs or camp counselors, but offer no path to citizenship. More than 2,800 foreign teachers arrived on American soil last year through the J-1, according to the State Department, up from about 1,200 in 2010.”

In 2015, an Alliance for Ethical International Recruitment Practices drafted a code of conduct designed to protect teachers recruited by U.S. school districts from other countries.  The code established that the school district recruiting foreign teachers should pay for the costs of recruitment, and any legal costs, but the teachers Goldstein describes—hired from the Philippines and processed by entrepreneurial consultants, have all paid their own costs: “Much like other foreign workers… (Mr. Soberano) went into debt…. He said he used savings and a bank loan to pay $12,500, about three years’ worth of his salary in the Philippines, to Petro-Fil Manpower Services. That is a Filipino company of Ligaya Avenida, a California-based consultant who recruits and screens teachers for the J-1.  The payment covered Mr. Soberano’s airfare and rent for his first few months in Arizona, as well as a $2,500 fee for Ms. Avenida and a $3,500 fee to Alliance Abroad Group, a Texas-based company that is an official State Department sponsor for J-1 visa holders. The J-1 lasts three years, with the option for two one-year extensions.”

Goldstein reports that the J-1 program was envisioned not as an employment program for guest workers, but instead as a cultural exchange program as part of the 1961 Fulbright-Hayes Act.  Goldstein quotes Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers advocating that the H-1B visa program for highly skilled immigrants would be a more appropriate path for education professionals.  Mr. Soberano, for example, has three professional degrees earned in the Philippines—one of them in education with a focus in physics, along with 20 years of classroom teaching experience. Weingarten and others believe such teachers should be recruited through a program that would provide a potential path to citizenship instead of being recruited merely as short-term guest workers.

Teachers like Mr. Soberano are sometimes interviewed via Skype, although some school districts are sending recruiters to the Philippines.  “The Philippines was the top sender of J-1 teachers to the United States in 2017, followed by Jamaica and China… Many short-staffed schools turn to Teach for America, which recruits recent college graduates and career-changers for two-year stints in the classroom. But to hire a Teach for America recruit, who may have no teaching experience or coursework in education, the district must pay $5,000 per teacher, in addition to salaries.  For a similar amount, a single trip to the Philippines can net dozen of candidates, all of whom, as required by the J-1 program, have degrees in education or the subjects they teach, and at least two years of experience in a Filipino school.” There is, of course, no guarantee that these teachers’ training reflects the kind of preparation required for Arizona teacher certification.

Importing foreign teachers, willing to work for far lower salaries, may seem like a solution to a school district’s deep, years-long financial crisis.  But teachers imported from abroad on J-1 visas are, by definition, short term hires. Goldstein reminds readers that, “research is clear that teacher churn negatively impacts academic achievement.  J-1 teachers are, because of the visa’s limitations, temporary, and without higher pay and regular raises, administrators in these districts say it will be impossible to attract enough American teachers and keep them in the classroom.” “The school districts that recruit teachers like Mr. Soberano say that they have few other options because they can’t find enough American educators willing to work for the pay on offer. They say that the foreign teachers are being given valuable opportunities, and that American students are enriched by learning from them. But critics argue the teachers are being taken advantage of in a practice that helps keep wages low and perpetuates years-long austerity policies.”

Please read Goldstein’s fine report, Teacher Pay Is So Low in Some U.S. School Districts That They’re Recruiting Overseas.  Then spend some time considering, along with everything else you have learned from the stories of striking teachers this spring, what all this says about years of austerity budgeting across a sizeable number of states. These are perilous times.