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Tenn. Lawmakers Ponder Limits on Foreign Workers in Charters

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Lawmakers in Tennessee are taking on charter school regulation—but not the kind of school regulation we usually see debated in statehouses.

A Republican-sponsored bill would limit the number of individuals working on temporary visas for foreign workers that charter schools can hire, at 3.5 percent of the total staff.

The measure would specifically forbid charter schools from being authorized if they relied on non-immigrant foreign workers receiving H1B or J1 visas to fill staff positions above the aforementioned cap. It would also bar charters from trying to circumvent the limit by affiliating with colleges or universities that by federal law are exempt from the visa program's annual caps.

In addition, the legislation would not allow charters if those schools' sponsors or governing bodies are "controlled by foreign nationals." The language on that point seems relatively broad. The bill says an authorizer may not approve the charter if:

"The sponsor or governing body of the proposed charter school is controlled by foreign nationals or any of the sponsor or governing board members are affiliated with, have been previously affiliated with, employed by or are otherwise connected to another charter school or schools in the United States or its territories that are or have been controlled by foreign nationals."

The measure emerges about a year after Tennessee was the site of a high-profile, cable-talk-show ready debate over Sharia law, which some lawmakers set out to ban in the state. Sharia is Islamic law, and it influences the customs and religious practices of followers of the faith.

The shadow of the Sharia debate has led some to question whether the measure is aimed at restricting hiring at Islamic-themed charter schools, in particular.

An article in the Tennessean explores those complaints. But backers of the bill say their primary concern is ensuring that U.S.-born workers are first in line for job openings at charters. (While Republicans control Tennessee's legislature, the newspaper also reports that some Democratic state lawmakers are backing similiar legislation on foreign workers in charter schools.)

[UPDATE: (11:45 a.m.) The Tennessee Charter Schools Association opposes the legislation, which it regards as unnecessary and standing in the way of charters hiring talented employees, said the organization's executive director, Matt Throckmorton.

As it now stands, the association says it knows of just six teachers in the state, out of a total of about 500 working in charter schools, who have been hired through the foreign-worker visas. Throckmorton believes all of those teachers are employed at the same school.

The overwhelmingly majority of the 52 charters approved or in operation in Tennessee are relatively small, he noted. That means that hiring a single teacher on a foreign worker visa could push them over the 3.5-percent threshold, Throckmorton said.

He said he charter school advocates should be focusing on improving their quality, not questions over the immigration status of their employees.

"The language itself is fraught with pitfalls," he said. "There's a much larger picture here we don't want to engage in at all. We want to stick to education reform."]

We'll sell where the debate takes the bill in the weeks ahead.

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