DODEA language programs in bind over teacher citizenship
After 10 years of skirting federal employment laws, the Department of Defense Education Activity is faced with possibly losing 26 foreign-language teachers, which could threaten programs at nearly two dozen Defense Department middle and high schools overseas if qualified replacements can’t be found.
Federal law requires teachers of core curricular courses at Defense Department schools overseas to be U.S. citizens. Unless Congress passes legislation that would permit the local hiring of non-U.S. citizens when qualified American teachers cannot be found, jobs are at stake for nine teachers in the Pacific and 17 in Europe.
The DODEA first acknowledged using non-U.S. citizens to teach foreign language in a 2006 internal memo, which was provided to Stars and Stripes. According to the memo, the lack of compliance was discovered in 2002, when there were about 50 such employees in the school system. Proposals to fix the problem were never brought forward, DODEA spokesman Frank O’Gara said.
When asked why the DODEA had decided to finally address the issue, O’Gara said it was because of challenges in filling foreign-language vacancies in certain locations, such as Turkey. He later acknowledged the problem was more widespread.
The DODEA’s solution to the noncompliance issue in 2006 was to internally “grandfather” all current foreign national teachers and to instruct schools to cease from hiring additional non-U.S. teachers. But this summer, O’Gara said DODEA’s lawyers determined the grandfathering memorandum was inconsistent with federal statue and would be rescinded. Three non-U.S. citizens were hired to teach foreign language after 2006.
O’Gara said the legislative proposal had been in the works for four years and had required careful preparation. Through initial planning for the legislation, DODEA headquarters “discovered the depth of the issue,” O’Gara wrote in an email.
The proposal is part of the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act currently before Congress. When Congress might act on the proposal isn’t certain; last week the House and Senate passed a continuing resolution, which gives lawmakers until at least Dec. 11 to decide on the NDAA.
For now, the DODEA is set to begin “the process of placing U.S. citizens in all of the identified positions through reassignments or recruitments,” O’Gara said. “If no qualified U.S. citizen is found for a particular position, and the legislation is passed, DODEA would be able to retain the host-nation instructor to teach the classes.”
If the proposal does not pass, the law remains, and a qualified U.S. citizen must be found. If no candidates are found, O’Gara said, the agency will “then make alternatives available to students such as virtual school courses.”
He said efforts are being made to reassign foreign national teachers as needed and that there are no plans to “let go” any of the instructors.
The head of a teachers’ organization said the instructors in their current positions should not be penalized because of the DODEA’s noncompliance with the law.
“A lot of these teachers are very competent,” said Marie Sainz-Funaro, president of the Overseas Federation of Teachers, which represents DODEA teachers in Spain, Portugal, Turkey, Bahrain and Italy. “They’re not people we just pick up off the streets.”
Sainz-Funaro said it can be difficult to find qualified Americans to teach certain languages, such as Arabic and Chinese.
“The important thing is we have to meet the needs of our students and do whatever it takes to make sure they have the instruction they need,” she said.
The issue has prompted at least two formal complaints.
At the start of this school year, an Italian trade union confederation filed a protest with the U.S. Embassy in Italy and the 31st Fighter Wing at Aviano, charging that the reassignment of an Italian-language teacher at Aviano Middle/High School, an Italian national, was improper because the union was not notified of the move.
The union contends the school is bound by a U.S.-Italy working agreement that requires advance notice of any “employer-initiated actions which affect the Italian workforce at an installation.” It’s the union’s position that the job qualifies as an Italian position because it has been held by an Italian since the high school opened in the early 1970s, said Eugenio Sabelli, a local union representative.
The reassignment of Aviano’s high school Italian-language teacher follows the filing in May of an Equal Employment Opportunity formal complaint by another teacher at the school. That teacher is presumed to be a U.S. citizen, though DODEA officials declined to comment on the complaint as a matter of policy.
The languages taught by the foreign national instructors are specific to the countries or the regions in which the teachers are employed and include Italian, Japanese, Korean, German, Spanish, Turkish and Arabic.
In addition, last school year there were two non-U.S. teachers in Europe assigned to classes other than foreign languages, “outside the scope” of what they are allowed to teach, according to the DODEA. Those two were to be replaced by U.S. teachers this school year, O’Gara said. One was teaching physical education in addition to a host nation intercultural class, and the other had a class in English as a second language.
The non-U.S. foreign language teachers were qualified — just not legally approved for the job, O’Gara said.
“While the host nation instructors have the proper certifications to teach foreign languages, they do not meet the citizenship requirement to be the teacher of record,” he said. “Those courses must be taught by U.S. citizens.”
Stars and Stripes’ reporter Kent Harris contributed to this story.