Educators assail Tenn. bill seeking to exile legal immigrants from schools

By Stephen C. Webster
Thursday, March 29, 2012 12:26 EDT
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A U.S. immigrant activist and his daughter protest in Washington, D.C. for immigration reforms. Photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler/Shutterstock.com, all rights reserved.
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The nation’s largest non-union teacher association on Thursday attacked a new bill in the Tennessee legislature for a provision that would prohibit the state’s charter schools from hiring too many legal immigrants, in what at least one conservative group apparently views as part of its ongoing crusade against Muslims.

The bill, due to be voted on next week, is known as the Putting Tennessee First Act. It requires that all charter schools in the state disclose all sources of private and foreign funding, and specifies that the state may not approve schools that are staffed in excess of 3.5 percent by immigrant workers on H1B or J1 visa programs.

Speaking to Raw Story on Thursday, Gary Beckner, executive director of the Association of American Educators, lashed out at the bill as unnecessary and counterproductive, insisting that lawmakers focus on educational innovation over restrictions targeting immigrants.

“Any proposal to limit foreign-born workers is counterproductive to the mission of charters as a whole,” he said. “Not only would this provision limit the field in terms of staffing but the reporting requirements of this bill are an unnecessary burden. We are at a crossroads in American education. We must focus our efforts on clearing the path for innovation and creating a system that works for students and teachers alike.”

Similarly, the largest non-union teachers group in the state, the Professional Educators of Tennessee, also criticized the bill’s limits on immigrants.

“I don’t know how you measure that,” Dr. J.C. Bowman, the group’s executive director, told Raw Story. “That may be difficult, particularly if you’re talking about schools in Hispanic communities. And you might even run into schools where teachers are coming from other places like China or Germany. German influence in east Tennessee is expanding as well… If they create a German language [charter] school, that may be a difficult issue to address. I wouldn’t personally affix a percentage to [the bill].”

He added that other measures in the bill, like requiring schools to disclose all private contributions, foreign and domestic, is a positive proposal, but he lamented that the bill unfortunately seems to be “targeting particularly schools for Muslims or other Middle Easterners.”

The bill is being promoted by The Tennessee Eagle Forum, a conservative group that bills itself as a “pro-family” leader. The group has in recent years crusaded against American Muslims in public life, and lobbied in 2011 for a bill that initially sought to label all followers of Islam as “terrorists.”

That bill, called the Material Support to Designated Entities Act, would have classified followers of Islam as “terrorists” because some Muslims adhere to Sharia law, a system of religious edicts that, among other things, asks Muslims to commit to regular prayers, certain dietary habits and other religious practices.

Under fire from religious and civil liberties groups, lawmakers ultimately removed the most controversial controversial religious content from the bill. It passed in May of last year.

“It makes you wonder if there’s something in the water in Tennessee, with all that’s going on down there,” Ibrahim Hooper, communications director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, told Raw Story. “The original anti-Sharia bill would have made it illegal to be a Muslim in Tennessee. Thank God that was ultimately changed.”

Hooper also said that he believes the Putting Tennessee First Act “obviously targets Muslim charter schools, which I might add, do not even exist in Tennessee.”

The Material Support bill’s sponsors — Rep. Judd Matheny (R) and Sen. Bill Ketron (R) — are also behind the Putting Tennessee First Act, which similarly makes no reference to any religion but seemingly accomplishes the aim of keeping foreigners away from Tennessee children.

The Tennessee Eagle Forum, Rep. Matheny and Sen. Ketron did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler, Shutterstock.com.

Stephen C. Webster
Stephen C. Webster
Stephen C. Webster is the senior editor of Raw Story, and is based out of Austin, Texas. He previously worked as the associate editor of The Lone Star Iconoclast in Crawford, Texas, where he covered state politics and the peace movement’s resurgence at the start of the Iraq war. Webster has also contributed to publications such as True/Slant, Austin Monthly, The Dallas Business Journal, The Dallas Morning News, Fort Worth Weekly, The News Connection and others. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenCWebster.
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