Puerto Rico set for major education overhaul

by | Feb 26, 2018 | Headlines, Puerto Rico | Comments

For those of you who have been following our articles on education, you may remember that in January there were hints that Puerto Rico might move to transform schools into charter schools or to privatize them. This is now no longer the stuff of rumors or poorly sourced news articles. On the February 5, Governor Ricardo Rosselló and Department of Education Secretary Julia Keleher proposed legislation for alliance schools, which would be similar to public charter schools. The legislation would set up these schools by allowing specialized nonprofit entities the ability to administer schools. The proposed legislation also sets up a voucher system.

The voucher system would allow parents to choose between public and private schools, and is predicted to be up and running in the 2019-2020 school year. The idea behind voucher systems is that a portion of tax revenue that usually goes towards funding public schools would be set aside to fund either the private or public school a parent decides to send their children too. Proponents of the system claim that it increases competition resulting in better schools and education, and that it helps students who would have previously been unable to afford private school the opportunity to go. On the other hand, critics believe that it doesn’t do either of these things. Rather than increasing competition, it puts the schools on different tracks. Private schools are not subject to the same kinds of controls and oversights as public schools, and are subject to much less community involvement. Voucher systems also take funding away from public schools, making money even tighter for them. In a review of the voucher program in Arizona, it was discovered that 76% of the money for the voucher system was given to children already in private schools. This means that families already affluent enough to afford private schools were receiving the majority of the benefit of the reduced tuition, reinforcing inequalities in the system rather than leveling the playing field between economically advantaged and disadvantaged families.

This would not be the first time creation of a voucher system was attempted in Puerto Rico. In 1994 a voucher program was proposed. It was struck down by the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico before it could begin, the legal reasoning being that the Constitution of Puerto Rico prohibited public funds being used to fund private schools. There is the possibility that the system will again be legally challenged.

Rosselló also announced that all public school teachers in Puerto Rico would receive a $1,500 annual salary increase. This is welcome news to Puerto Rican teachers who have been subject to a wage freeze since 2014. However, representatives of teaching unions have made it known that they are skeptical of the changes. While giving teachers a salary raise is a nice gesture, the reality of diverting money from schools makes them doubt that the changes will result in better education or services for students.

The website of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools released a statement supporting the move by Rosselló and Keleher. The CEO, Nina Reeves, said that “The National Alliance supports Governor Rosselló and Secretary Keleher’s effort to allow more public school options to the students of Puerto Rico. As the legislation notes, Puerto Rico is experiencing a mass exodus of families to the United States following the devastation of Hurricanes Irma and Maria. To combat this, elected officials recognize that strengthening public schools and the options available to parents will be an essential element of rebuilding Puerto Rico’s economy and securing its future fiscal prosperity. As advocates for strong public school options for all students, the National Alliance believes that increased autonomy coupled with strong accountability creates the conditions for public schools to deliver an innovative, flexible, and high quality education to their students and families.” The organization advocates strongly for charter schools and for greater school choice. Supporters of charter schools praise them for giving more choice and flexibility in learning to parents and students. Detractors say that, because charter schools get to choose their students, the resulting choice can be discriminatory racially and towards disabled students.

The proposed changes create a general feeling of uneasiness in a place where students and teachers are still struggling to deal with a lack of electricity and water. It is difficult to say what the outcome will be of these proposed changes. With the school closures and mergings from the beginning of the year combined with the trauma of the hurricanes and the post-hurricane flight of families to the mainland, not to mention the daily struggles of teaching without adequate supplies or structures, the changes are sure to cause further disruption.