Puerto Rico school closures signal possible brain drain
The citizens of Puerto Rico are working hard to overcome the economic, social, and emotional aftermath left behind after Hurricane Maria slammed the islands on September 2017. The storm blew back a curtain that revealed a lush but treacherous paradise, illuminated by high unemployment rates, a crumbling infrastructure, enormous debt, and an uncertain business environment. It also revealed that the Puerto Rican government had completely failed to invest in its people for the future to build a stable system.
Puerto Rico’s Department of Education announced Thursday that it would close 283 schools this summer, a 25% reduction in the current number of public schools. Only 150 schools were closed from 2010-2015. This closure announcement comes on the heels of a controversial education reform bill signed in March by Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló, that aims to introduce a charter school pilot program and private school vouchers for 3 percent of students.
“This is like killing 300 communities,” Aida Díaz, president of Puerto Rico’s Association of Teachers, told Education Week. Thousands of teachers went on strike following Rosselló’s announcement.
Understandably, teachers and parents have reacted negatively to the new closures. The Department of Education has promised that no teachers would be laid off, but it is estimated that 4,000 non-tenured teachers would leave their jobs regardless. With the ongoing economic crisis and the sharp decline in student enrollment, officials are expecting several thousand more students to leave the islands for the mainland to continue their education in the coming years.
Loss of homes, loss of jobs, blackouts, food shortages, and unreliable running water are just some of the things plaguing Puerto Rico in Maria’s aftermath that triggered the exodus from the islands. It’s impossible to know exactly how many Puerto Ricans have left, or how many are skilled workers, teachers or children, but more than 269,000 people have arrived in Florida on flights from Puerto Rico since the hurricane. Demographers expect Maria to trigger an even larger migration in the long term. The Center for Puerto Rican Studies at the City University of New York estimates that Puerto Rico will lose up to 470,335 residents by the end of 2019 — about 14 percent of the population.
While the hurricane’s destruction resulted in monetary loss, Puerto Rico now has an opportunity to reevaluate and rebuild for the future before even greater control is lost. This starts with most important aspects of a community, its youth. Unfortunately, they are letting the opportunity to support young community members slip through their fingers.
More than 10,000 Puerto Rican children have enrolled in Florida’s public schools in the past three months. Puerto Rico is failing to realize that the youth represent the fuel to launch modern technologies and ultimately expand businesses, entrepreneurship and the economy. This migration of Puerto Rican youth causes a massive loss to the potential of an academic and technological labor force that will contribute their expertise to the economy of other countries. The mass migration of individuals leaving their home country in hopes to find more favorable situation is known as “Brain Drain”. In the long term, Puerto Rico will suffer economic hardships because those who remain don’t have the ‘know-how’ to make a difference and the youth that get educated in other countries will grow up most likely never contributing back to the economy of Puerto Rico.
By supporting the youth and educating them properly, Puerto Rico will be working towards a future of manufacturing next-generation communications, driverless cars, renewables and Nano-technologies that will be the tools to move them out of their current financial situation. Training and developing young adults will be critical to creating an economy that is not dependent upon aid in the face of major adversity.
Real resilience requires an ability of the citizens to help themselves when critical functions are disabled. Without teachers to instill education in the youth of Puerto Rico, the youth will never attain that resilience. Puerto should use a portion of US aid to invest in strategies that educate the youth and retain citizens. With the technical skills in roles in agriculture, cybersecurity and renewable energy, the financial losses would be minimized the next time a catastrophe does occur.
Puerto Rico’s unemployment rate for youths ages 15-24 is 24.29% signaling that the next storm may be developing in the shadows. This storm can be avoided though, if Puerto Rico lays the path for young adults to move from being a dweller, to a contributing, educated citizen. Educational attainment is the key to industrial development and Puerto Rico has the all the assets it needs such as fertile soil and sun, accessible ports, plenty of teachers, an entrepreneurial spirit and strong-willed citizens to use as a foundation towards a prosperous future. This foundation will ultimately assure businesses that the new trained workforce won’t be so quick to leave the islands for new lives elsewhere in the face of adversity.