Feb. 17, 2002 – Gov. Charles W. Turnbull has an idea for addressing the territory's chronic teacher shortage: Find a way to get around federal immigration regulations so the local government can hire University of the Virgin Islands graduates from other islands who don't have "green cards."
While the governor was in Washington, D.C., this past week to attend an training session for education officials on the Bush administration's new Reading First program for young children, he brought the idea up with U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige.
"We are in a position where people from other islands come and are educated at the University of the Virgin Islands, but they cannot stay and teach our children," Turnbull said during an interview in Washington on Friday following the three-day Reading Leadership Academy.
"We raised this issue at a private session with Secretary Paige," Turnbull said, adding that Paige then told one of his assistant secretaries to check out the situation with the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.
There are two established INS programs that would allow for hiring non-U.S. citizens in the United States and its territories: the H-1A (temporary) and labor certification (permanent, commonly called "green card") visas. However, both the governor and Education Commissioner Ruby Simmonds, who also attended the conference and was present for Friday's interview, dismissed both programs as awkward and cumbersome.
The governor indicated that his making this point to Paige was a highlight of his visit to Washington. The conference Wednesday through Friday was designed to help states and territories prepare to implement the new federal reading program and apply for funding to do so.
The "private session" with Paige included about a dozen others conference participants, he said, including Florida Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan and top education administrators from various other states. All had the chance to tell the secretary about a major educational problem in their own jurisdictions.
Current teacher concern not discussed
Neither Turnbull nor Simmonds brought up the controversy that erupted Friday morning in the territory after Sen. Norman Jn Baptiste, who chairs the Legislature's Education Committee, publicly released a letter he had written to Simmonds saying he had heard that some Charlotte Amalie High School seniors will not be able to graduate on schedule because, as a result of teacher vacancies, they have not been able to take required courses.
Assistant Education Commissioner Noreen Michael, as acting commissioner in Simmonds' absence, said math, Spanish and French were "areas of concern" at CAHS and that "We have been able to identify persons for several of these positions at the school and expect to have those persons in place by the middle of next week." (See previous St. Thomas Source stories "Claims seniors won't graduate being looked into" and "Michael: Seniors not jeopardized by vacancies".)
Nor did the governor or the commissioner raise the issue of the decision by the territory's national accrediting body to withdraw accreditation from three of the four public high schools.
The Reading First Program is authorized in the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, an initiative the Bush administration touted as one of its principal legislative accomplishments last year.
Turnbull and Brogan were the ranking dignitaries at the three-days session, although a Government House press release had stated that "all the nation's governors are expected to attend." The administration of Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the president's brother, and Lt. Gov. Brogan launched its own "A+ Plan for Education" reform initiative in that state several years ago; the program has been widely criticized by education organizations and political opponents.
Also attending the conference from the territory were the governor's deputy chief of staff, Alric Simmonds; his confidential assistant, Horace Brooks; and three other Education Department officials.
Asked why he alone of the nation's governors was at the conference, which largely dealt with discussions of the methodologies of teaching, Turnbull stressed his interest in education: "I am an educator, and I am an education governor." The former teacher, principal and Education commissioner stressed that reading plays a vital role in education and in life, and said that he was impressed by the fact that the new federal program is based on "proven scientific research on what works in reading programs."
The governor had in front him as he spoke a notebook the size of a metropolitan telephone directory that had been given those who attended the conference.
Commissioner Simmonds said the Reading First program calls for annual testing of first and second graders' reading skills. If the program does not produce positive results in three years in a state or territory, she said, that jurisdiction might not be funded for a second three-year round.
Money assured, but how much isn't known
Turnbull and Commissioner Simmonds could not say how much money the Reading First initiative is expected to bring to the Virgin Islands, beyond saying the funding formula will be based on the number of children and their economic levels, and that there will be a national allocation of $900 million a year for up to six years.
Asked what the total budget of the V.I. Education Department currently is, Simmonds said she had not come prepared to discuss such matters.
The exact workings of the federal formula could make a big difference to the Virgin Islands, since the territory's population is a tiny faction, less than .05 percent — that's 1/20th of 1 percent — of the U.S. population. Were raw population figures to be used (which they won't be), the territory would stand to get about $360,000 a year; if the territory has, say, twice the average proportion of poor children (which is likely), then the annual grant to the islands could be about $720,000. If there is a special set-aside for each of the U.S. territories, as there sometimes is in such formula programs, the figure might be higher.
The Government House release last week announcing that Turnbull would attend the conference cited Paige as saying "that the attendance of the governor and his leadership team in Education is crucial to the Virgin Islands' success in applying for these funds."
On Friday, the governor described the award of the Reading First program funds to the territory as virtually automatic. "We will have to send them an acceptable application," he said, adding that he regarded that as what would happen. A Washington commentator observed that since this is a formula program — not a competitive one — the presence or lack of presence of a governor at the training session could not be crucial.
A current case of non-citizen teachers
On the matter of hiring non-citizen teachers, there is another U.S. territory where this is a tradition, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands in the Pacific north of Guam. There, many U.S. mainland and Filipino teachers, as well as some local residents, are employed in the public schools. The jobs do not pay particularly well, and observers suggest that locals who qualify for teaching jobs prefer other island government jobs which are less demanding than having to go to school every day and work with the students.
Since the Northern Marianas, for historic reasons, has its own immigration policy, it does not have to deal with the INS on the importation of the Filipino teachers, who often are paid less than their mainland and local counterparts. The Virgin Islands, on the other hand, is covered by the mainland immigration act.
One r
eason that some employers find the INS visa programs clumsy is that they are designed in part to prevent the depression of American labor markets. Usually some minimal salary standards apply to jobs for foreign workers in the visa programs. An employer is not supposed to bring in foreign workers (including teachers) if that action will lower wages or reduce job opportunities for U.S. citizens.
Some paperwork is involved in the transactions, and some employers find the bureaucratic and other requirements tedious. Others — notably agricultural employers and software firms — use these programs extensively and hire large numbers of foreign workers through them. Virgin Islands employers did this in the 1950s and '60s to build hotels during the tourism boom years, utilizing laborers from other Caribbean islands as temporary workers.
Friday's interview, at the invitation of Government House, had been scheduled for 2 p.m. It turned out that a second interview, with representatives of TV2, had been scheduled for the same time. Since the cameraman needed to set up his equipment, it was agreed amicably that the Source would go first.


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