Lynne Ciocon, a special education teacher in Prince George’s County, might not have her job in August. And it’s not because of a poor evaluation, burnout or budget cuts.
The county school system sent letters to Ciocon and about 150 other foreign teachers — most of whom are from the Philippines — telling them that the district no longer plans to sponsor temporary work visas or permanent residency. It could mean that they will have to leave when their visas expire in coming months and that thousands of county students will have substitutes for the final stretch of the school year.
For a decade, schools in Prince George’s and elsewhere across the country have hired foreign teachers for hard-to-fill positions in math, special education and science, and the county’s decision not to renew visas for those positions could mark a significant change in its hiring policy.
The move comes on the heels of a dispute between the Prince George’s school system and the U.S. Department of Labor over county violations of labor laws. In 2011, the Labor Department fined the school system $1.7 million and forced it to pay $4.2 million in back wages to 1,044 foreign teachers because the teachers paid fees that they shouldn’t have. The federal government also barred county schools from issuing visas in 2012, letting them keep teachers who had visas but preventing them from hiring new ones or extending others’ agreements.
Leni Fortson, a spokeswoman for the Labor Department, said that on March 15, the county was given the go-ahead to hire foreign teachers and issue visas. But it appears that the school system isn’t going to participate, a move that could help to avoid the problems it ran into before.
School officials said there is no plan to look into sponsoring any teachers before at least the end of the summer, and then only if it’s absolutely necessary. Max Pugh, a schools spokesman, said that to fill next year’s staffing needs, officials will “move forward cautiously to ensure that all selection and hiring requirements and regulations established by the Department of Labor and United States Citizenship and Immigration Service are met.”
“The Division of Human Resources will advertise, recruit and fully exhaust all domestic applicant pools to demonstrate a true staffing shortage before the administration will consider sponsorship for temporary work visas . . . and permanent residency,” Pugh said in an e-mail. “Therefore, it is anticipated that no action will be taken related to sponsorship prior to August 2014.”
In 2012, according to the most recent data on international teacher recruitment from the American Federation of Teachers, nearly 13,000 foreign teachers with visas were working in U.S. classrooms. In 2008, that number was about 20,000, and it has steadily fallen since then.
Ciocon, who has worked in Prince George’s for seven years, has watched colleagues return to the Philippines or secure jobs in other states because of the labor dispute and uncertainty about their future in the school system. But she remains hopeful that she will remain at High Bridge Elementary School, in Bowie.
“I am optimistic that I will stay here,” said Ciocon, who has completed documents that she hopes will extend her stay. But she noted that many colleagues are applying for teaching jobs elsewhere.
June Evans, president of the Robert Goddard French Immersion School’s PTA, said her daughter lost her second-grade teacher a couple of months before the end of the school year three years ago because of the county’s labor violations. “It was abrupt for them,” Evans said of the impact on students. “They didn’t know why, and it was difficult to understand.”
Evans said she did not think that having substitutes for the final couple of months hurt the students academically but that it probably did emotionally.
“They needed closure,” she said.
Jodi Evans’s former teacher, who was from Canada, sent a letter to her and her classmates the following year to explain what happened and to express how much she missed her students.
Del. Kris Valderrama (D-Prince George’s) said she believes that teachers are being penalized for doing nothing wrong. She said it is schools officials’ obligation, having brought the teachers into the country, “to find some recourse for them, whether it is renewing their visas or helping them to find other work in the state.”
“I’d prefer they stay in the county,” Valderrama said.
Board member Edward Burroughs III (District 8), who represents a part of the county where there is a large Filipino community, said it is “extremely unfortunate” that the teachers cannot remain in the district.
“These teachers came to PGCPS at our time of greatest need,” Burroughs said. “It’s sad that we have left them in a position to be sent back to their home countries, especially when their home now really is here.”