International School Law/Teacher Law: It’s Complicated

Many of our lawyers and staff attended international schools or are sons or daughters of teachers or professors. I spent my junior year of high school at Robert College in Istanbul, a year studying Spanish at LAE Madrid and Taronja Spanish School in Valencia, Spain (both are excellent, BTW) and 8 months studying French at the Institut de Touraine. All four are amazing schools and these were some of the best years of my life. My father taught English Literature at a liberal arts college for 36 years. A large number of my firm’s lawyers also grew up in families with professors and other educators. My law firm’s international attorneys have a long history of representing universities and international schools on their international legal work, ranging from helping them set up in foreign countries to licensing technology they’ve developed to foreign companies.

Our writings and our legal work and our various international school connections mean we get 10-20 emails every month from people teaching around the world. These emails can roughly be divided into the following four categories:

  1. Visa issues.
  2. Employment contract issues.
  3. Medical and landlord issues.
  4. Starting a school issues.

Recognizing that most of these teachers are not wealthy, our international lawyers strive to do the best they can to give responses that contain actionable advice with the limited time and information we have. The below reflects how we typically handle the four most common categories of foreign teacher emails.

1. Visa Issues

We almost always have to punt on visa issues because our immigration law expertise is mostly limited to  immigration to the United States and to Spain, with a smattering of additional knowledge gleaned from the transactional work we do in Asia and in Europe. Since none of us have deep immigration law knowledge relevant for most foreign teachers our response is usually to urge them to seek out a local immigration lawyer for assistance. I know from my own experience in other countries that there is a veritable ton of bad and outdated immigration law information on the internet and an hour or two with a lawyer who actually knows this area of law can be invaluable. This is pretty much true of all aspects of international law.

2. Employment contract issues

The typical email we get will say something like “I am a teacher in China and I have been fired for taking a day off because my sister came to visit. Can my school do this?” Our response to this sort of email will usually be something like the following — changed quite a bit for brevity and for emphasis:

I have no idea whether your school can or cannot do what it did and for us to know we would first need to make sure we do not represent the school at which you worked (because if we did, we could not represent you) and then we would need to read your contract and then compare that with the local laws and the province’s laws and China’s laws and then maybe speak with the local employment authorities as well. If it does turn out that the school illegally terminated you, we would then need to figure out exactly what we can do about that. Likely that would be registering a complaint with the appropriate Chinese governmental body and using that to try to pressure your employer to take you back, which is very unlikely to happen. When you are not taken back we would then need to look into suing the school. If we did sue the school and you won, we might get an order saying the school needs to take you back and we might get some really small amount in damages. Then again we might also lose. Your school may or may not abide by the order.

The problem with the above is that at some point your China visa may be revoked and you will need to leave China. And win or lose, you challenging this school may lead to you never getting a job in China again and going through the above will be time consuming and expensive.

3. Medical and landlord issues

These emails often come down to money. “The hospital wants $400” or my “landlord wants to raise rent by $100 a month.” As a father of two wonderful daughters (one of whom will be starting law school at the University of Washington in the fall), my responses to these are usually nine parts paternalistic, one part legal.

4. Starting an international school 

The typical email will come from someone who has been teaching English in China or in Vietnam or in Poland or wherever and they now want to know what it will take for them to start a school in one of these countries. The below interaction is an amalgamation and it is typical:

English Teacher: We would like to open a school for foreign students _________. There is a small but growing group of foreign parents in the city looking for foreign education options for their children different from what is currently on offer here.

We are unlikely to get the enrollment needed to have our own campus. Can we legally share school grounds with a local primary school (public/private) if our students do not follow the government’s curriculum? If we can’t, then I guess we are out of luck.

My second question concerns whether your law firm could handle the process, assuming it is feasible and how much it would cost.

Our response: We have helped set up many foreign school companies and schools around the world — in fact, (one of our international lawyers, Arlo Kipfer, has a ton of experience with setting up schools around the world and he is renowned for this sort of work) but we’ve never dealt with your question on sharing space in [xyz fourth tier city]. My guess is that you can share facilities with the local school, but only if your school has its own separate address. I say this because most cities require you have your own address, but things like this tend to be very local and so we would need to research the local laws on this. As for how much this will cost, I would estimate it will cost at least $25,000. This estimate would be for our lawyers and business specialists (all of whom have substantial experience in setting up foreign schools) to research and figure out what you can and cannot do, form the company, secure various governmental approvals, register your trade names and logos, help on the lease and other agreements with the entity that owns the existing facility, draft your employee contracts and your employee handbook and the various other legal matters that invariably arise when starting a school company, including all sorts of discussions with local government officials. This amount will also include the various fees and licenses you will need to pay.

If – as it sounds – the ability to use the facility will make or break this deal, I would propose we start by figuring out whether that is or is not possible. We would do that by researching the applicable laws and then by confirming with the local authorities that our reading of the laws corresponds with theirs. If you can tell us more about the potential space we can get back to you with an estimate for our handling this discrete issue. Alternatively, perhaps you could go speak with xyz government agency and just ask them this.

If you have any additional questions, please don’t hesitate.

Pretty much every time we then get something back from the teacher saying that the costs and/or the complications are more than they expected and they will need to re-think.

As much as I dislike being the one to hit them with reality, I take comfort from believing it is better they get the truth than to have them waste time and money on a project they are not financially capable of finishing.