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Tenn. Bill to Limit Foreign Workers at Charters Goes to Governor

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An unusual measure that would limit the number of foreign workers charter schools can hire has cleared Tennessee's GOP-led legislature and landed on the desk of Gov. Bill Haslam.

The bill specifically says that a charter school could not rely on non-immigrant foreign workers on H1B or J1 visas for more than 3.5 percent of their workforce in any given year.

Critics of the proposal have questioned whether it is designed to crack down on schools with particular ethnic or cultural themes, such as those with an Islamic focus. Similar tensions arose last year in Tennessee when lawmakers considered a controversial proposal to ban Sharia law in the state.

The bill also requires that charter schools disclose if "foreign governments, foreign legal entities," or their affiliates provide funding for those schools.

Questions about the purpose and necessity of the bill were on display during a recent debate on the floor of the state's House of Representatives. (See the link at the bottom of this blog item to catch the action.)

Republican Rep. Judd Matheny, a bill sponsor, said the measure was aimed at ensuring that charters look to hire Tennessee teachers first before recruiting from abroad. But some Democrats were skeptical. State Rep. Jeanne Richardson, of Memphis, whose district includes many charter schools, said she saw no justification for the cap.

"I live in Shelby County, and I'm familiar with many of the charter schools there," the lawmaker told Matheny during the floor debate. "As far as I can tell, there has been no nefarious foreign influence at any of our schools. Do you know something that I don't?"

Richardson predicted that the measure, if made law, would damage the state's reputation among foreign companies thinking of doing business in Tennessee.

"We live in a global economy," she said, adding: "We now have a bill before us that makes us look incredibly xenophobic. It makes us look like we're scared of foreigners and all things foreign."

Matheny said charters could ask authorizers for permission to exceed the 3.5 percent cap. (The bill says they can do so only if charters make a "satisfactory showing" of efforts to recruit "lawful, permanent residents" of the United States first.)

The measure is "putting more accountability into where funds are going to charter schools, who's hired at charter schools," Matheny said, during a floor debate, "so that parents, teachers, and students can make better decisions about where to go to school."

The final decision on the bill belongs to Haslam, who "has concerns" about it, said spokesman Dave Smith. He declined to say whether the governor would sign it, saying it is still being reviewed.

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