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Commentary: Legal immigration can be part of SC teacher shortage solution

Chris Richardson (copy)

Chris Richardson

South Carolina is facing its worst teacher shortage in more than a generation. At the start of the 2021-22 school year, more than 1,000 S.C. classrooms did not have a teacher, a 50% increase from the previous year and an 88% increase from two years prior. During that same year, 7,000 public school teachers left their jobs. South Carolina leaders are looking at different solutions to this shortage, including alternative certification programs and raising teacher salaries.

Hiring foreign nationals who are already here or abroad may be a part of that solution. There are two types of non-immigrant visas that could prove especially useful for new teachers: J visas and H-1B visas.

J visas, also known as exchange visitor visas, allow individuals to participate in approved programs to teach, study, research, consult or receive training. The U.S. State Department designates public and private entities to sponsor these visas. The J visa program is designed to promote cultural exchange, especially for educational purposes. Several S.C. school districts already use J visas to supplement their workforce, and more should look into doing so.

Like the J-1 visa, the H-1B visa has high standards for those who qualify. An H-1B holder must possess highly specialized knowledge and at least a bachelor’s degree, or a foreign equivalent, in the specific specialty.

Using these visas to meet the need for teachers in our state would provide more benefits than simply having a qualified individual at the head of a classroom. Having a foreign teacher is an investment in our students' long-term success. The United States is an increasingly diverse nation expected to have a majority population of minorities by 2044, and the world is becoming ever-more internationally connected. Schools have cultural exchange programs and take international trips; colleges are increasingly preparing students for international markets. Having a foreign teacher introduces children to the broader world in a way that they might not otherwise experience.

Aside from attracting individuals from abroad with these two visa categories, South Carolina also needs to tap the foreign nationals already here. Often immigrants face so-called brain waste; their talents and experience aren't fully utilized. Whether they be Afghan or Ukrainian refugees, DACA recipients or others, there are potentially thousands of individuals with significant career or educational experience along with bilingual skills who are currently shut out of the education market.

Care must be taken, however. We can't view hiring foreign nationals as a replacement for other steps needed to combat the teacher shortage. Teacher groups rightfully fear school districts will use immigrants to drive down wages and skirt real reform. Any comprehensive plan should ensure school districts commit to paying these immigrants as if they were U.S. citizens.

These foreign nationals are not an answer to low teacher pay reducing the attractiveness of teaching jobs or the tough school environment that demoralizes teachers. Nor can they be used as an excuse to ignore the lack of professional development opportunities, large class sizes and lack of affordable child care for teachers — factors that drive many educators toward other jobs. Immigrants cannot be used as a cudgel to pit one group against another. They must be viewed as one of many arrows in South Carolina’s quiver of educational reform.

In an era in which we ask teachers to be educators, therapists, coaches, security teams and mentors, the least we can do is equip the force with every able mind and body. Teachers must think outside of the box every day to provide services to their students. S.C. legislators can use this opportunity to maximize the legal immigration system and help address our shortage of educators. Additionally, as lawmakers continue to debate teachers' pay this approach would help ease their congested workload.

We can’t afford to keep putting teachers on the back burner when their work remains the foremost indicator of our society’s future successes.

Chris Richardson is an immigration attorney, former U.S. diplomat and COO of Greenville-based BDV Solutions, a labor shortage solutions company.

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