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Visa Las Vegas!

The casino capital has relaxed its immigration laws to ease teacher shortages - and other states are following suit. Should Britain brace itself for an exodus? Martin Whittaker reports.

While the United States has been in the grip of an economic downturn, Las Vegas doesn't seem to have noticed. The casino capital is still booming, making Clark County, Nevada, the fastest-growing school district (equivalent of our local education authority) in the US.

"We have no state income tax, we have sunshine 340 days of the year and our cost of living is quitereasonable," says Dr George Anne Rice, in charge of human resources for the district's schools.

"People have been moving here because it's such a goodenvironment . We need at least 1,600 new teachers annually - we'll have opened 16 new schools this year."

One response to this need for teachers has been to look abroad. Clark County's public (state) schools have won a change in the law which previously allowed them to hire only home-grown teachers. Now, for shortage subjects they are allowed to take on people from abroad with special visas. These allow immigrants to work in the US for up to six years.

In the next decade, it is estimated that the country's schools will need to find a 2.2 million teachers. A crisis on this scale has been prompted by a growth in school rolls, teacher retirement, a high attrition rate among teachers, particularly in urban schools, and a policy drive in some states to reduce class sizes. As in Britain, shortage subjects include maths, science and foreign languages.

So, what if more American states begin to look abroad for teachers and immigration services respond to their needs? Some fear that what is just a ripple across the Atlantic could become a tidal wave here.

If immigration is relaxed, even to let only a small percentage offoreign teachers into the US, it could worsen Britain's recruitment crisis: the idea of spending a couple of years in America would become an attractive proposition to young teachers. The situation has not gone unnoticed here.

"They want something like 250,000 teachers a year in North America between now and the end of the decade," says Professor John Howson, the TES columinist and recruitment expert. "Even if they want to source just 1 per cent of that from overseas, that's 2,500.

"If they wanted to source half of that from English-speakingcountries and the other half from Hispanic, we could be looking at up to 1,000 teachers disappearing from the UK to North America. And you have to remember that we have an infrastructure capable of doing that through supply agencies."

David Haselkorn, president of Recruiting New Teachers Inc., a non-profit-making organisation set up in the 1980s to raise the esteem of the profession, says: "Some states feel the pinch particularly severely, especially states that are having population growth or significant population change."

Las Vegas, California, Texas, Florida, North Carolina and New York are suffering. Those in urban, low-income areas with high ethnic minority populations are being hit the hardest.

"We have this pernicious practice in the US of placing our leastexperienced and often least qualified teachers in our most challenging classrooms and leaving them to sink or swim. That's one of the key factors of new-teacher attrition."

But America is responding to the situation with measures that include grants to states or school districts to help them recruit, and the Troops to Teachers programme in which former military personnel are encouraged into the classroom - a policy that's a particular favourite of President George Bush and his wife.

Some areas are actively recruiting teachers abroad with help from the immigration authorities. Chicago has set up the Global Educators Outreach programme, inpartnership with the Immigration and Naturalisation Services and the US Department of Labour.

Chicago Public Schools sponsors candidates from abroad by petitioning the immigration service for a temporary work authorisation visa. The programme has brought inquiries from school districts across the US wishing to follow suit.

"Is essence, we have globalised our teacher recruitment effort," says Carlos Ponce, head of human resources for Chicago Public Schools. "We have taken a page out of the book of the private sector.

"When the pharmaceutical or engineering industry is having trouble finding candidates, they get special visas from the federal government to allow them to bring in specialists from other countries. That's never been done ineducation before, and we started it."

Foreign recruitment has tended to focus on Spain, the Phillipines and South America, targeting bi-lingual teachers. Britain is less of a target, says David Haselkorn - because it's recognised that we have our own recruitment crisis.

Emma Westcott, policy adviser for General Teaching Council in England, says: 'The council isconscious that in the global teacher market, it is possible to be apredator one minute and prey the next. We should set an example in responsible and ethical overseas recruitment and hope that other countries will follow it when they're recruiting here."

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