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 SC classrooms were without a teacher, an increase of 50% from the previous year and 88% from the previous two years. During that same year, 7,000 public school teachers quit their jobs. South Carolina leaders are exploring different solutions to this shortage, including alternative certification programs and increased teacher salaries.
Hiring foreign nationals who are already here or abroad can be part of this solution. There are two types of nonimmigrant visas that might be particularly 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 US Department of State designates public and private entities to sponsor these visas. The J visa program is designed to promote cultural exchange, including for educational purposes. Several SC school districts are already using J visas to supplement their enrollment, and more should consider 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 foreign equivalent, in the specific specialty.
Using these visas to meet the need for teachers in our state would provide more benefits than just having a qualified person at the head of a class. Having a foreign teacher is an investment in the long-term success of our students. The United States is an increasingly diverse nation that is expected to have a majority minority population by 2044, and the world is becoming increasingly internationally connected. The schools have cultural exchange programs and go on international trips; colleges are increasingly preparing students for international markets. Having a foreign teacher introduces children to the wider world in a way they might not otherwise experience.
In addition to attracting people from abroad with these two visa categories, South Carolina must also exploit the foreign nationals already there. Often, immigrants face what is called brain waste; their talents and experience are not fully utilized. Whether Afghan or Ukrainian refugees, DACA recipients or others, there are potentially thousands of people with significant work or educational experience as well as bilingual skills who are currently excluded from the job market. education.
However, you have to be careful. We cannot view the hiring of foreign nationals as a substitute for other measures needed to address teacher shortages. Teachers’ groups rightly fear that school districts will use immigrants to drive down salaries and circumvent real reform. Any comprehensive plan should ensure that school districts commit to paying these immigrants as if they were US citizens.
These foreign nationals are not a response to the low remuneration of teachers which reduces the attractiveness of teaching professions or to the difficult school environment which demoralizes teachers. Nor can they be used as an excuse to ignore the lack of professional development opportunities, the size of class sizes and the lack of affordable childcare for teachers – factors that push many educators towards other jobs. Immigrants cannot be used as a club to pit one group against another. They should be seen as one of the many arrows in the quiver of educational reform in South Carolina.
In an age when we ask teachers to be educators, therapists, coaches, safety teams, and mentors, the least we can do is empower all capable minds and bodies. Teachers must think outside the box every day to provide services to their students. SC legislators can take this opportunity to maximize the legal immigration system and help address our shortage of educators. Plus, as lawmakers continue to debate teacher compensation, this approach would help ease their cluttered workload.
We cannot afford to continue to put teachers on the back burner while their work remains the primary indicator of our society’s future success.
Chris Richardson is an immigration attorney, former U.S. diplomat, and COO of Greenville-based BDV Solutions, a labor shortage solutions company.