The Janesville School District’s International Education Program has taken on new significance as a trade war between the U.S. and China threatens to prevent Chinese students from coming to the U.S.

We hope the program doesn’t become another casualty of this steadily worsening dispute. As it stands, local farmers are already feeling the effects of reduced U.S. exports to China, with crop and milk prices at historically low levels. Local consumers also will feel pain as new tariffs on $300 billion in Chinese imports kicked in Sept. 1, with more tariffs to take effect Dec. 15.

Janesville students could suffer, too, because they benefit from learning alongside Chinese students, who must receive visas to visit the U.S. and participate in Janesville’s international program. Those visas are reportedly getting more difficult to obtain. A Chinese ministry’s travel advisory warning about increased gun violence in the U.S. doesn’t help recruitment efforts.

As tensions ratchet up between the two nations, our local link with China becomes even more important. The international program can help heal divisions by encouraging understanding and trust between the two cultures. Understanding and trust are key to growing the global economy. We should strive for a cooperative effort to lift all nations, not play a zero-sum game.

Of course, the international program must remain financially viable. We agree taxpayers should not be paying for Chinese students to learn at Janesville schools. International students pay their own ways and have generated a small profit for the program. But if enrollment were to drop too much, the program could start losing money and shut down.

The good news is school officials are being proactive and turning to other countries to make up for enrollment losses of Chinese students. This year’s summer camp experienced large declines, with 45 fewer Chinese students attending this year. Chinese enrollment for the school year is relatively stable, with 32 students attending this year versus 33 last year.

Starting next year, the district hopes to have students from Colombia, according to Robert Smiley, chief information officer for the district. Smiley and program coordinator Mary Christensen visited Columbia and Spain to open channels for new students to attend Janesville schools. Their outreach efforts likely will take a few years to bear fruit, and the school board should show patience as this program navigates through new challenges.

School board members should feel free to scrutinize program finances, but we hope they do so with an eye toward finding ways to make the program stronger, not diminish it. The board should not underestimate the value of building trust and understanding between cultures, especially under the current political circumstances.

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