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Classroom recruiter's dilemma

Filipino teachers in Baltimore say the problem uncovered in Prince George's County, where the school district was informed it had to cover the teachers' visa fees and related expenses, applies in Baltimore as well. They are right — at least to an extent.

The U.S. Department of Labor determined this week that the Prince George's County school system illegally reduced the wages of more than 1,000 foreign teachers the county hired under the H-1B visa program by requiring them to pay a total of about $4.2 million in fees that, by law, should have been covered by their employer. The H-1B program allows employers to hire foreign professionals to work temporarily in the U.S., but it requires they be paid the same wages and benefits as those paid to U.S. workers doing the same jobs.

Because the foreign teachers, who were mostly from the Philippines, paid about $4,000 each in various fees related to their visa applications and other expenses, the Labor Department's Wage and Hour Division determined their compensation was substantially less than that of comparable U.S. workers. It ordered school officials to immediately reimburse the teachers for those expenses and slapped the system with an additional $1.7 million in fines for willfully failing to pay fees that it knew or should have known were its responsibility. Under the H-1B program, employers are required to pay all the costs involved in recruiting foreign workers.

The Labor Department opened its investigation into Prince George's County's recruitment of foreign teachers four years ago, so officials there can hardly claim they didn't know there was a problem. But they insist the school system was making a good-faith effort to resolve the issue. Many of the foreign teachers themselves didn't know that the county was supposed to pay their visa fees and other expenses, such as the fees they paid to employment agencies in their home countries to find them work abroad. Nor did the county have any way of knowing how much the foreign employment agencies were charging their clients, or whether the fees were reasonable. The county plans to appeal the Labor Department's decision, which it says would be devastating for schools at a time when the system is already facing a $155 million budget deficit and the prospect of having to lay off hundreds of teachers.

Moreover, school officials say they were put in an impossible situation after Congress passed the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which required school systems to put "highly qualified" teachers in every classroom, including instructors in hard-to-fill subject areas such as math and science. Since there weren't enough qualified U.S. applicants for those jobs, the county schools were forced to recruit foreign teachers just to satisfy the law's requirements. Filipino job seekers were deemed a good fit because they spoke English well, had excellent credentials and were accustomed to maintaining order and discipline in the classroom.

Whatever the outcome of the county's appeal, it nevertheless seems unfair that Prince George's schoolchildren will be the ones most likely to suffer from the county's predicament. Even if the penalties the school system owes are reduced or waived, the Labor Department could still prohibit the county from recruiting foreign teachers in the future. That could adversely affect the quality of classroom instruction, particularly in math and science. It seems ironic that in trying meet the NCLB law's mandate to raise the quality of classroom teaching, the system has run afoul of another federal law that makes hiring excellent teachers that much harder and more expensive — in effect, a variation on the maxim that no good deed goes unpunished.

The penalties Prince George's officials are facing obviously have implications for other school systems around the country that have significant numbers of foreign teachers, including Baltimore, which has hired about 500 Filipino teachers in recent years. City schools CEO Andrés Alonso says he has no reason to believe the city has violated any H-1B regulations or is being investigated by the Labor Department. The fact that city schools, unlike those in PG and other districts that have been investigated, so far haven't received any notice of complaint from the Labor Department is probably a good sign.

But the law giving the Labor Department authority to intervene in such cases is very specific about what constitutes a violation: It basically comes down to whose signature appears as the employer on the H-1B visa application. If it is a recruiting firm or employment agency, they are responsible for the applicant's visa fees and other expenses — and the Labor Department will go after them if they don't pay. But if it is a school system that signs, then by law it must bear those costs.

Unfortunately, that appears to be the case in Baltimore, where years ago school officials applied for H-1B visas by naming the city as employer. It's perfectly possible no one ever realized that might put the city in jeopardy simply because no complaint was ever lodged. It's a perverse system, but now that it is known that Baltimore may have run afoul of the law, it would behoove school officials to investigate the matter promptly. It would be far better for the city to resolve this matter itself rather than wait for Labor Department officials to open a formal investigation.

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