by Félix Pérez
While tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans are still without electricity more than six months after Hurricane Maria and much of the island struggles to resume normalcy, voucher and charter school supporters are swooping in and taking advantage of the crisis, similar to what occurred in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina 13 years ago.
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In a limited but significant foray, Gov. Pedro Rosselló signed a law last Thursday establishing a voucher and charter program in the U.S commonwealth. The charter schools program will be implemented in 10 percent of the island’s 1,100 public schools, and the private school vouchers will be limited to 3 percent of students starting in the 2019-2020 academic year. Meanwhile, Education Secretary Julia Kelleher plans to shutter 300 public schools. Puerto Rico has 319,000 students, including an estimated 140,000 with special needs. Separately, the governor has a plan calls to cut the education department’s budget by $466 million per year by 2023.
Keleher said, “The reform is focused on providing students with better opportunities.” Keleher, whose $250,000 salary makes her the island’s highest paid public official, was awarded almost $1 million in contracts to “design and implement education reform initiatives” on the island in the four years prior to her appointment, reported The Nation magazine. “As secretary, her salary is capped by law, so in order for Keleher to receive this level of compensation, she was given additional contracts that established her as an adviser to her own agency,” according to the magazine.
Left unanswered in the law or by Roselló or Keleher are concerns that beset charter and voucher schools nationwide. Namely:
- Will for-profit companies be allowed to manage charter schools?
- Will religious schools participate in the voucher program?
- Will charter or voucher schools serve students with disabilities? In Puerto Rico 40 percent of the student population requires special education services, but research suggests charter schools are less likely than traditional public schools to enroll and retain students with disabilities.
The new education law has been met with fierce opposition from educators. Thousands of educators marched to the capitol two weeks ago, angered that the law was drafted without their input. They point out that charter schools don’t have to comply with the accountability standards mandated at traditional public schools and that they will take scare funding from local schools while being free to pay teachers less, offer fewer benefits and push out low-performing students.
Puerto Rico’s public education troubles, while exacerbated by Hurricane Maria, and painful austerity measures predate the disaster. Many people point to the federal oversight board created by Congress to manage the island’s finances as it restructures massive debt to Wall Street. The board got off to a rocky start. A U.S. District Court judge overseeing the commonwealth’s bankruptcy case chastised lawyers who asked that she approve $75 million in legal and consulting fees and another $2 million in expenses for the period May 3-Sept. 30, the first five months of the case.
In its extensive article, titled “6 Months After Maria, Puerto Ricans Face a New Threat—Education Reform; Colonialism and disaster capitalism are dismantling Puerto Rico’s public-school system,” The Nation covers the march toward the privatization of Puerto Rico’s public services, including, but not limited, to public education. It wrote:
It’s important to see how Keleher and her policies fit within the landscape of post-Maria Puerto Rico. Although her nomination raised some eyebrows, it also paved the way for other less debated appointees, such as Walter Higgins III, recently chosen to lead the power authority down the road to privatization, and Brad Dean, who was named CEO of the island’s new Destination Marketing Organization, nonprofit private agency that does work previously done by government-sponsored tourism agencies. The creation of this agency speaks to the broad transfer of responsibilities and resources from the public to the private sector that is taking place following the storm.
Meanwhile, educators filed a lawsuit this week against the island’s education department to stop the charter school and private school voucher law. Filed by the Association of Puerto Rican Teachers, which represents some 30,000 teachers, the lawsuit maintains that it is unconstitutional to use public funds for private schools.
“To say charters are public schools when they are going to be administered, directed and controlled by private hands is clearly an illegal and unconstitutional contradiction,” union president Aida Diaz said.