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Facing Budget Cuts and Teacher Shortages, U.S. School Districts Look Abroad to Hire

GLENDALE, Ariz. — The latest wave of foreign workers sweeping into U.S. 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.

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Teacher Pay Is So Low in Some U.S. School Districts That They’re Recruiting Overseas
, New York Times

GLENDALE, Ariz. — The latest wave of foreign workers sweeping into U.S. 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 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: Soberano is a public school teacher.

As walkouts by teachers protesting low pay and education funding shortfalls spread across the country, the small but growing movement to recruit teachers from overseas is another sign of the difficulty some districts are having providing the basics to public school students.

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 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 these times, you have to be innovative and creative in recruiting,” said Patricia Davis-Tussey, Pendergast’s head of human resources. “We embrace diversity and really gain a lot from the cultural exchange experience. Our students do as well.”

The district, which covers parts of Glendale, Avondale and north Phoenix, is a hotbed of activism in the teacher walkout movement, known as #RedforEd. Picketing educators say they have had to move in with their parents, apply for food stamps and pay out of pocket for classroom essentials like graph paper and science supplies. They argue that taxes are too low to adequately fund schools, or for teachers to secure a middle-class lifestyle.

In response to the teacher walkout, Republican lawmakers introduced a budget that provides new funding for salaries and classrooms. But leaders of the #RedForEd movement said the bill fell far short of their demands, and will restore only about a quarter of the $1.1 billion in annual cuts that they say schools have weathered since the last recession.

In Pendergast, where salaries of around $40,000 are a source of pain and protest for the district’s American educators, Soberano is thankful for the pay.

Much like other foreign workers, he went into debt to find a job in the United States. 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 Soberano’s airfare and rent for his first few months in Arizona, as well as a $2,500 fee for 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. For each year he works in the United States, Soberano will owe Alliance Abroad an additional $1,000 visa renewal fee.

“You have to make some sacrifices to leave your family way back home,” Soberano said. Every night, he prepares lessons for his seventh- and eighth-grade science students, and every morning, he wakes up at 4 a.m. to video chat with his wife and two teenage daughters, who are ending their day in Manila. Despite their separation, he said the experience has been rewarding, “teaching in a different culture, but also, financially.”

The school districts that recruit teachers like 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 yearslong austerity policies.

Though J-1 teachers account for only a tiny share of Arizona’s 60,000 public schoolteachers, international recruitment has spread quickly in recent years, as sponsor companies market themselves to districts facing shortages, and word spreads among administrators. According to the State Department, 183 Arizona teachers were granted new J-1 visas last year, up from 17 in 2010.

“Rather than increase salaries, districts may once again resort to recruiting internationally as a way to solve the teacher shortage,” Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, a national teachers’ union, said in a statement. She added that while her union “will fight for everyone working in our communities and educating our kids to have fair wages, rights and workplace protections regardless of where they’re from, the use of the J-1 visa program to fill long-term shortages is an abuse of an exchange program.”

Administrators and researchers say experienced foreign educators can be a better option for students than the substitutes who would otherwise fill these positions. But 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.

A 15,000-Mile Recruiting Trip

During the recession, districts found it easier to hire American workers, since more of them were looking to teach. But as the economy picked back up, hiring became difficult in states like Arizona, which have pursued years of tax cuts that have dampened school budgets and teacher pay. The Pendergast district has lost $1.6 million over the past five years because of state and local cuts, according to administrators.

Superintendent Lily Matos DeBlieux has sought private donations to fund a Spanish-English dual-language program, a monthly lunch discussion to help parents navigate their children’s education and many other efforts. “With the little we have, we have done an incredible job,” she said.

But hiring remains a challenge. Even with 48 J-1 visa-holders teaching this year, Pendergast has still had to rely on 20 long-term substitutes, said Davis-Tussey, the chief of human resources.

In addition to interviewing international candidates via Skype, members of the district’s staff have traveled to Manila several times since 2015 to interview teachers. Soberano met with the district there in June 2016, and just two months later, arrived in Arizona to teach at Sunset Ridge Elementary School in Glendale. The Philippines was the top sender of J-1 teachers to the United States in 2017, followed by Jamaica and China.

The 15,000-mile round-trips made sense, Davis-Tussey said. 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 dozens 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.

Soberano holds one bachelor’s degree in education, with a focus on physics, and another in philosophy. He has also studied theology. He has over 20 years of classroom experience. Mukul Bakhshi, director of the Alliance for Ethical International Recruitment Practices, in Philadelphia, said the Philippines purposefully trains teachers, nurses and other workers “in a way that it’s easy for them to pass muster from licensing authorities here. They obviously speak English and they are willing to work.” Remittances from foreign workers account for about 10 percent of the Philippines’ gross domestic product.

The Pendergast district did not owe any money to the companies that connected it with recruits in Manila. Those costs were borne by the Filipino teachers.

James Bell, president of Alliance Abroad, the visa sponsor, said a financial arrangement like Soberano’s is just one of several models the company uses, and that in some cases, school districts pay visa renewal fees. Alliance Abroad sponsors several hundred J-1 visa holders each year, according to Bell, working primarily in Arizona, California, Nevada, Texas and Utah. He said the biggest demand was for special-education teachers, though districts also looked to hire in science, math and foreign languages.

In Gila Bend, a small town 70 miles southwest of Phoenix, 11 Filipino teachers who room together in several shared apartments commute to work by van 100 miles round-trip each day, according to Peggy Perry, a secretary in the district’s central office. In Casa Grande, halfway between Phoenix and Tucson, about 25 Filipino teachers with J-1 visas are teaching science, math, special education and English, said Mary Ann Amerson, head of human resources for the Casa Grande Union High School District.

The district works with Avenida, the California-based consultant, to find the teachers and interview them via Skype. “We don’t pay any money for it,” Amerson said. The recruits pay the fees.

Avenida said her company, which uses the name Avenida International Consultants in the United States, recruited 250 Filipino teachers with J-1 visas in 2017. According to State Department data, that would account for more than half the total number of J-1 visa holders who arrived from the Philippines last year.

Avenida joined union representatives in a working group, assembled by the Alliance for Ethical International Recruitment Practices, that drafted a 2015 code of conduct for international teacher recruitment. The code calls for districts to bear all recruitment and legal costs, and for foreign educators not to be charged more than a nominal application processing fee, under $150. It has not been widely adopted, and Avenida said she disagreed with the group’s conclusions.

“Somebody has to foot the bill,” she said — and in a climate of tight school budgets, that somebody is the teacher.

Lessons and Challenges

In Soberano’s case, it was not until his second year on the job that he had paid back the money he owed and was able to begin sending funds home to his family. He has had to live austerely. In his first year in Arizona, he shared an apartment with five other Filipino teachers, and he now rents a room in the home of a Filipino-American family.

Still, he said he was nothing but grateful for the opportunity. “The district is very supportive,” he said. Pendergast created a welcome committee to assist the Filipino teachers, and colleagues pitched in by buying groceries and driving the newcomers to work.

In addition to financial challenges, foreign educators face instructional ones. Administrators across the country who work with J-1 visa holders say the teachers must learn the federal requirement for inclusion, which requires that disabled children be taught alongside nondisabled peers, in the least restrictive environment possible.

And classroom management techniques differ across cultures. “In the Philippines, the teacher there is really an authority figure,” Soberano said. “Once I stood in front of the class, everybody kept quiet.” That wasn’t the case in Arizona.

“One thing I also learned is to be friends with the students,” Soberano added, “to know more about each one and especially their family. How are they doing? When you understand them, I remove that kind of problem.”

State Department regulations require J-1 teachers to engage in cultural exchange activities with their students. The J-1 program was created by the 1961 Fulbright-Hayes Act, with the purpose of fostering understanding between nations. Soberano said that once a month, he teaches a lesson on Filipino culture, and that his students have been most interested in discussing the differences between the Filipino and American education systems. In the Philippines, Soberano tells them, school is stricter and more academically challenging.

New regulations from the State Department, which went into effect in 2016, require J-1 holders to return to their home countries for at least two years after their visas expire before reapplying. Soberano said he may do that. But his wish is to reside legally in the United States and work long-term as a teacher. “I would love to bring my family here,” he said. Weingarten, the union president, suggested the H-1B visa for high-skilled immigrants, which offers a pathway toward permanent residence, would be a more appropriate visa for a teacher like Soberano. But Pendergast and other school districts say long wait times and high legal costs can make the H-1B prohibitive. The Trump administration has also tightened oversight of that program.

In Denver public schools, 20 bilingual education teachers hold H-1Bs and about three hold J-1s. But in the future, the district said, it may expand its use of the J-1.

“We still don’t have enough people to fill the openings,” said Bart Muller, the managing director of employee and labor relations for the system. “The political environment has been a little challenging over the last year and a half. The bottom line is there are a lot more hoops to jump through with H-1B, while J-1 is fairly simple. You can do it expeditiously.”

Lora Bartlett, an education professor who has written a book about migrant teachers, argued there should be a new visa category that meets the needs of public schools while allowing effective teachers to achieve legal residency. But, she added, “there are people who have a vested interest in not finding a long-term solution. There is a whole industry that makes money every time a new teacher comes into the country. They don’t make money when a teacher stays.”

And in Arizona, where many teachers are expected to improve test scores using aging textbooks inside buildings in need of repair, districts worry that a modest increase in teacher salaries and school funding won’t be enough to persuade more local candidates to enter the profession.

“Quite frankly, for a lot of the teachers, some of the fun and creativity has been taken out of it with mandates,” said Amerson, the head of human resources in Casa Grande. “It seems like we spend the whole entire second semester testing kids.”

In Pendergast, Davis-Tussey agreed that higher pay alone would not be enough to fill the empty jobs that have forced her to look to the Philippines.

“That respect for the profession is just as important as the money,” she said. “And for a long time, teachers have felt, not only did they not have money, but what they were doing was being brushed aside and not respected.”

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