Fairfax County, Va., America’s fifth-wealthiest county, is considering hiring foreign (J-1) public school teachers, just like some lower-income entities, such as East Baton Rouge, La., and Baltimore City and Prince George’s County (both Md.) have done, usually to bad reviews.
In the case of Fairfax County, it is thinking about bringing in teachers from Barbados, a former U.K. colony, just as the three other jurisdictions used teachers from the Philippines, a former U.S. colony. The rationale is a “shortage” of teachers, as usual, when it is more likely a shortage of teachers’ wages.
It so happens that I have written extensively for CIS on the use of foreign teachers, that I used to live in Fairfax County (where my sons got most of their K-12 educations), that I now live in adjacent Arlington County (seventh on the wealthy county list) and have visited Barbados.
My first reaction to the news, seen in Barbados Today on October 19, was amazement. How could enlightened, wealthy Fairfax County be following the footsteps of boards of education in desperately poor areas such as Lea County, N.M., which has an annual average household income (in 2020) of $61,867, less than half of that of Fairfax ($127,866)?
But looking a little more closely at salary data, I soon learned that while Fairfax County is wealthy, it is also a bit stingy when it comes to paying teachers, at least as compared to adjacent jurisdictions. For example, the average teacher’s salary in Arlington, Va., was $82,138 in 2020, according to the Virginia Department of Education, compared to adjacent Fairfax County’s $77,285. (Also-adjacent Falls Church was paying $81,851.) No wonder that the Fairfax authorities were looking for a distant supply of teachers, one that would accept Fairfax County’s salary levels.
What’s wrong with bringing in trained teachers from overseas? There are at least three problems:
- K-12 students deserve teachers who are totally familiar with the American experience and who speak easily understandable American English; this is particularly true of disadvantaged students who typically wind up with the foreign teachers; they often are “special needs” children;
- Americans should not lose tax-supported jobs to aliens; and
- The arrangements for the hiring of the aliens are nominally supervised by the U.S. State Department, which has no field force in the U.S. and has shown itself to be useless in supervising the often-greedy middlemen in the field. This is a J-1 exchange visitor program.
What History Teaches Us About Foreign Teacher Programs. CIS has reported on the numerous failures of foreign teacher programs, including this one from Washington, D.C., which experimented with teachers from Colombia. Our report at the time said:
Just about every agency in sight failed 45 exploited foreign school teachers in the J-1 exchange visitor program run by the State Department — except for a government agency little known outside the District of Columbia, the D.C. Office of the Attorney General.
That office, using only D.C. law, has sued a middleman, Earl Francisco Lopez, and a series of entities that he controlled, for charging the D.C. teachers excessive fees, for failing to pay some of them for working for his outfits, for usurious loans, and for passing his entities off as State Department-sanctioned organizations, which they are not. For more on these abuses, see the AG's press release, which contains a link to the 18-page complaint. The teachers were all from Colombia and were threatened with loss of their jobs and deportation if they did not pay the fees and the loan payments.
Among the failures:
- The D.C. public schools, which failed to protect its alien teachers from exploitation and failed to hire Americans who would not have been subject to these abuses;
- The D.C. teachers' union, for not protesting the employment of these vulnerable workers;
- The D.C. tax collectors, who failed to notice that two of the middleman entities had not paid for their local business licenses;
- The State Department-endorsed International Teacher Exchange Services, LLC, of Charlotte, N.C., which failed to notice what was happening to its charges;
- The federal and district enforcers of the minimum wage laws;
- The Department of State, whose offices are within a couple of miles of where the teachers were working; and
- The teachers themselves, for falling to be alert to the nature of these arrangements.
On this last point, admittedly a sensitive one: Are we hiring people to teach our young who are so unknowing about America, and so obtuse about their working environment, that they fail to protect themselves? That they have not used the internet to find out the rules of the game? The victims are not illiterate farmworkers, they are all college graduates.
One of the schools' attractions to these teachers — with or without Lopez's involvement — is that they are semi-indentured workers. Unlike a citizen employee who might not sign up again for the job after one year at a difficult school, the aliens are stuck with the assignments they get. If they want to work somewhere else, the only obvious legal option is to return to Colombia.
This is not the first time that foreign teachers have been recruited through the J-1 program and then exploited in the Capital area. The District of Columbia, adjacent Prince George's County, Md., and both Baltimore City and Baltimore County have all exploited foreign teachers — and ignored unemployed American workers in this way, as we reported more than seven years ago.
Does Fairfax County want to replicate the D.C. experience? There were similar accounts of misuse of foreign teachers in Louisiana, New Mexico, Texas, and Maryland. In some of these examples the H-1B program, which is a bit more protective of workers, was used in addition to the J-1 program.
Tax Status of the J-1 Teachers. One of the hidden problems with these J-1 teacher exchange programs relates to the teachers’ income tax status while in this country. For the first three years, assuming that they will return to their home country, they are not subject to U.S. income taxes. If they opt to stay beyond three years, they owe taxes not only on the fourth year’s income but on the income of the previous three years as well. Some to many teachers do not pay income taxes the first three years and, after they decide to say, suddenly have a major tax liability, one that no one had effectively explained to them: not the labor broker, not the schools, no one. There was a U.S. Tax Court case along these lines, as we reported several years ago.
The problem is easily avoidable: The Fairfax County schools could withhold enough money in the first three years to pay these taxes, and in the few cases where the teachers return after three years they could mail the former teachers the money after they have returned to Barbados; if the teachers opt to stay, they will have the funds to pay their U.S. taxes.
Why Fairfax Might Be a Somewhat Better Employer than Others. To close on an upbeat note, there are two reasons why the Fairfax experience with foreign teachers might be better than most.
The first reason is the relative physical size of the incoming teachers; people from Barbados are about the same size as Americans; Filipinos are shorter and slighter than most Americans. Under most circumstances a teacher’s size should not matter, but in an unruly inner-city classroom, sometimes it does. One of the misadventures in the Maryland use of Filipino teachers was a story of a first grade teacher, presumably female and presumably diminutive, being beaten up by her first grade students.
A more significant advantage is that so far Fairfax County seems to be negotiating with the Barbados government rather than with a U.S.-based recruitment agency. The latter, all too often, inflict needlessly large fees on the incoming teachers and the State Department does nothing to prevent this exploitation.