One of the major obstacles negotiators faced in crafting the immigration reform package was the issue of foreign workers and U.S. jobs. The deal on whether and how foreign workers may take lower-skill U.S. jobs was forged only after intense negotiations between business and labor unions. So far, however, no one with comparable political heft is fighting hard for the interests of tomorrow’s workers – today’s U.S. students.
In a typical year more than 100,000 workers obtain H1B visas that allow companies to employ them in high-skill U.S. jobs. In order to obtain such visas, companies must demonstrate that they cannot find qualified candidates among U.S. citizens. The extent to which H1B visas will be needed in the future depends on how successful the U.S. education system is at providing today’s students with the STEM training needed to fill these high-skill jobs. Each U.S. student who is not provided with an adequate education in the areas of STEM represents a future adult at risk of becoming chronically low paid and under-employed because of his or her competitive disadvantage compared to a foreign student.
This immigration reform deal aims to provide employers with the chance to effectively buy additional H1B visas, funneling revenues towards improving STEM education in the U.S. It also changes the H1B visa cap for foreign students who obtain an advanced degree in a STEM field at an American university.
Disappointingly, both the money devoted to U.S. STEM education under these provisions, and the policies attached to them, amount to little more than lip-service to solve the problem of long-term education reform and economic competitiveness.
The revenues generated from fees on visas would, at best, amount to just over $100 million, less than half of what earlier drafts of the bill promised. So, obviously not all high-tech companies were willing to trade visas for higher levels of education investment. To put the $100 million figure into perspective, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, one of the beneficiaries of H1Bs, put more than $100 million into improving education in the city of Newark alone.
Worse, this paltry sum would be divided across several federal agencies and about a half-dozen different programs. Unless the fees on H1B sponsorships are raised dramatically, it makes no sense to spread the money out broadly.
More concentrated competitive grants like Race to the Top and Investing in Innovation Fund (i3) are more successful models to emulate as driving forces in effecting change at the state and district levels. Ironically, this is the same research and development strategy — emphasizing innovation — that is the key ingredient in making STEM-dependent companies so successful in the first place.
We should direct these grants towards the kinds of activities that have the best chance of improving academic achievement in STEM. Bold innovations that provide teachers with high-quality professional development or that pilot more rigorous, technology-driven STEM-aligned standards assessments and curricula would be wise investments. More enterprising efforts could opt to use the funding to pay incentives for STEM teachers or to build out an adjunct faculty corps of STEM educators, not unlike what we see at colleges and universities.
The important thing is to begin to build and inform a vision for what it would take to offer all of our children access to a strong STEM education that prepares them for college and careers. While this plan announced by the Gang of 8 has good intentions, it fails to deliver on both the magnitude and intensity of the efforts needed to get us there.
If business and labor can succeed in devoting considerable time and resources to protecting low-skill jobs, surely we can do the same with regard to our future high-skill workforce and economic vitality.  Just as with negotiations over low-skill jobs, we owe it to our kids and to our nation’s future to get it right now before taking another step forward.
Giandomenico is Legislative Director at Democrats for Education Reform.