The Learning

PBS Premiere: Sept. 20, 2011Check the broadcast schedule »

In Context

Currently, 600 Filipino teachers are working in Baltimore, comprising 10 percent of teachers in the Baltimore city school system. Statewide, the number is estimated to be more than 1,200.

Teaching abroad is an attractive option for many Filipino teachers, who stand to earn as much as 25 times their standard salaries in the Philippines. In Baltimore, which has been actively recruiting in the Philippines since 2005, Filipino teachers earn as much as $45,000 a year, as compared to an average of $3,500 earned for teaching public school in the Philippines (and slightly more for teaching private school).

Typically, interested teachers apply through a for-profit recruitment agency and pay $5,000 to $8,000 in fees to cover transportation to the United States, immigration certification and housing assistance.

For school districts such as Baltimore's, recruiting abroad is efficient and cost-effective. Studies conducted by the Center for American Progress and the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future show that teacher turnover rates are highest in the nation's poorest areas, leaving many low-income urban schools in constant need of new teachers. According to a Maryland teacher staffing report, 60 percent of new teachers in the city of Baltimore leave after fewer than five years. Teacher attrition is estimated to cost Maryland approximately $42 million annually.

Rather than recruiting at various job fairs and through other outlets in the United States, a recruitment agency can fill multiple positions by sending representatives on one trip to Manila in the Philippines. There, they can choose from hundreds of pre-screened applicants. Filipino teachers are highly valued because of their excellent English skills; when American teachers set up the public school system in the Philippines, English was established as the language of instruction and remains so to this day.

A recent decision by the U.S. Department of Labor, however, has halted the recruitment process. An April 2011 investigation of Maryland's Prince George's County school district, which had recruited more than 1,000 teachers from the Philippines since 2005, found that the district had failed to pay proper wages and to maintain proper documentation. The district was ordered to pay a penalty of $1.74 million, as well as back wages amounting to more than $4.3 million, to 1,044 teachers, most of them Filipino. On July 7, 2011, the Prince George's County public schools reached a settlement and agreed to pay the $4.3 million in back wages and to be barred from employment-based sponsorship for two years. For scores of teachers, this agreement meant an abrupt end to their lawful status in the United States.

According to U.S. immigration law on H1B visas, a temporary nonimmigrant professional worker must be paid the prevailing wage, and no cost of petitioning the worker may be paid by the worker, including filing and legal fees. By requiring Filipino teachers to pay their own fees, Prince George's County was essentially paying them less than it paid their American counterparts. Teachers employed by the Baltimore schools say their district, which already has more than 600 Filipino teachers, followed the same procedures for which Prince George's County is currently being penalized.

Prior to the announcement, an association of Filipino teachers in Prince George's County had written to the Board of Education claiming "unlawful dismissal" after promises of tenure. Hundreds of teachers in the district had been told in organized meetings that visas would not be extended to teachers in "noncritical" areas due to budget cuts. The teachers have since learned that the district was already under investigation at that time.

The Prince George's County public school system has been denied the opportunity to sponsor any more foreign national teachers, either for H1B visas or for permanent resident visas.

H1B visas may be renewed once, but not for more than six years total. Once a visa runs out, the H1B worker (or teacher, in this case) should have an employment- or family-based immigrant petition approved or underway. However, these applications are not always accepted. Citizenship has been denied to 15 Filipino teachers since March 2011. Teachers whose visas are no longer going to be extended -- some of whom have already invested in homes for themselves and their families in the United States -- face a choice between returning to their home countries, pursuing claims for wrongful termination and/or finding new employers to petition for them in the United States. However, it is believed that the Prince George's County decision may discourage other school districts from hiring.

Photo Caption: A scene from The Learning
Credit: Courtesy of The Learning

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