Four Oklahoma charter schools employ about 15 percent of their teachers from overseas using temporary nonimmigrant work visas, according to documents provided by the superintendent of the schools.
A similar chain of 33 charter schools in Texas reports that less than 20 percent of its teachers are from foreign countries using the work visas.
The independent school chains are privately run, but funded with state tax dollars.
The schools have come under scrutiny by conservative and tax watch groups throughout the nation, including Restore Oklahoma Public Education (ROPE), which can be defined as both.
“If Oklahoma teachers are being laid off, why are we as Oklahoma taxpayers paying people from not even inside our country to come and teach our children?” asks Jenni White, president of ROPE.
But the superintendents at both organizations are defending their use of foreign workers to fill positions for which there is a documented shortage in the United States.
“People who criticize us, they don't really know anything about our schools,” said Superintendent Soner Tarim with the Harmony Schools in Texas run by the Cosmos Foundation.
“As opposed to them (the critics), isolated groups, we have 16,000 students and so many parents, thousands of parents. We had 21,000 students on our waiting list last year in Texas.”
Kaan Camuz, superintendent of the four Sky Foundation schools in Oklahoma, said they always look for qualified American teachers before they start searching for international teachers.
“Finding a willing teacher for rigorous math and science classes is difficult,” Camuz said. “My teachers work a lot more hours than any other math and science teachers. They have to come in on Saturday and Sunday. To find such a willing teacher is really, really hard.”
The teachers come to America on temporary, nonimmigrant visas known as H-1B visas.
The visas are good for three years but an employer can apply for a three-year extension.
Of the 149 teachers employed at the four Oklahoma schools, 22 are here on H-1B visas.
Two of the schools are in Oklahoma City: Dove Science
The other two schools are in Tulsa: Dove Science
The 33 Harmony Schools operated by the Cosmos Foundation in Texas employ about 1,550 and of those about 292 are using H-1B visas, Tarim said.
The shortage of math and science teachers across the nation has been well documented by researchers.
President Barack Obama mentioned the shortage in his State of the Union address this year, and Oklahoma offers a financial incentive to lure math and science teachers to the state as part of the “teacher shortage employment incentive program.”
Since 2006, 134 teachers have received more than $1.7 million in cash incentives for teaching math and science in Oklahoma public schools, according to information from the State Regents for Higher
White, a former science teacher, questions whether there truly is a shortage of teachers. She says Oklahoma's certification process that allows professionals to get teaching certificates without returning to school has closed the need.
“Even if there were a shortage, with alternative certification you open up the ability to garner local Oklahoma teachers of math and science,” White said.
Camuz said hiring foreign math and science teachers is a temporary
Dove Science Academy offers graduates who major in math or science education a $500 per month scholarship to the university of their choice.
“I'll be really happy one day when all our math and science teachers are our alumni,” Camuz said.
Tarim said the Cosmos Foundation funds a similar program called “Grow Your Own Teachers” that will pay the four-year college tuition of any graduate who agrees to return to a Cosmos School after graduation and teach for two years.
The Oklahoma and Texas charter schools have a cooperation agreement for things like website design, student data systems and teacher training, however, the schools are run independently by separate nonprofits.
These schools are part of a growing movement in America, more than 120 charter schools that were founded by young intellectual Turkish nationals.
The charter schools are privately run but publicly funded institutions with an emphasis on math and science and a tendency to use H-1B visas to bring in foreign teachers.
Officials with the schools say the movement is organic and based on a love for education and educators in Turkey that carries over when people emigrate to the United States.
The officials say the schools are not connected or associated with a broader movement.
Social scientists who have studied the movement, say the schools are part of a broader international movement that has millions of followers and is based on the teachings of peace and interfaith respect preached by Fethullah Gulen, an elderly Islamic Turkish scholar.
Read more education news on NewsOK's Education Station blog.
If Oklahoma teachers are being laid off, why are we as Oklahoma taxpayers paying people from not even inside our country to come and teach our children?”