Fate of students, not Filipino teachers, must be city's concern

The most important question for Baltimore's schools as they struggle to figure out how to handle visa renewals for hundreds of Filipino teachers is whether the city still needs these workers.

That may sound cold in referring to a group of educators who have devoted years of their lives and professional careers to helping Baltimore schoolchildren. Many of those who came here as temporary workers did so in the hope — and often on an at least tacit promise — that the city would help them eventually become U.S. citizens if they did a good job.

But with shrinking school budgets and an economic recession that has thrown thousands of qualified permanent residents back onto the job market, the city can't afford to be sentimental — especially if it runs the risk of violating U.S. Labor Department regulations governing when foreign workers can be employed. The Filipino teachers came here in full knowledge that their status was temporary. School officials are under no contractual obligation to help them stay here indefinitely.

Instead, any decision the school department makes regarding foreign teachers must be based solely on how it affects the quality of instruction in the classroom. That means it needs to focus on hiring and retaining the best teachers it can find, regardless of where they come from.

Most of the Filipino teachers in Baltimore arrived on guest worker visas at a time when school systems across the country were facing shortages of highly qualified instructors in hard-to-fill subject areas such as math, science and special education. Filipino applicants were particularly attractive because they spoke English well, had excellent teaching credentials and were accustomed to maintaining discipline in the classroom.

Moreover, many of them were willing to pay thousands of dollars to foreign recruiting firms in order to help them land jobs in the states, where salaries for teachers were considerably higher than at home. Fees for their visas were supposed to be paid by their employers, but school systems did not always comply with that requirement. The Prince George's County school system is currently embroiled in a long-running lawsuit brought by the U.S. Department of Labor for not properly reimbursing its foreign teachers for those expenses, and on Monday, Baltimore City officials said they would repay visa fees for the district's foreign teachers. How much that will cost is unclear.

The temporary H-1B visas issued by the Labor Department allowed the teachers to work legally in this country as long as they were paid the same wages and benefits as American workers in similar jobs. But the visa program also required employers to certify that there weren't enough U.S. citizens or permanent residents to fill those slots. That provision was designed to ensure that American workers weren't displaced by foreign competitors.

That wasn't a problem for much of the last decade because the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind Act required every school to have a certain number of "highly qualified" teachers in the classroom. But the new city teachers contract has doubled the number of applicants to work in the system, and at the same time Baltimore has begun downsizing its "surplus" teaching staff – the pool of instructors who don't have permanent assignments when the school year begins. That means it may no longer be possible to justify the city's hiring of foreign teachers if there are enough qualified American citizens to fill those positions.

School officials need to take a hard look at the alternatives. It may be that the Filipino teachers in the system are still the most highly qualified applicants, and because many of them have been here for years, there's been ample time to vet their abilities in the classroom.

But if it turns out there is a large applicant pool of equally qualified American teachers who could do the job just as well, it would be foolish to expose the system to a possible Labor Department investigation by not considering them.

School officials must constantly keep in mind that their major obligation is not to any particular group of teachers but to improving the quality of instruction for Baltimore's schoolchildren. If the Filipino teachers fit that bill, we should by all means do everything possible to keep them. But if there are other options, those should be fully explored.

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