The Puerto Rico-Josephson Institute scandal, in context

by | Jun 8, 2018 | Puerto Rico | Comments

The Puerto Rico Department of Education found itself caught in a tangled web of media controversy amidst ongoing accusations of corruption. Puerto Rican media outlets have stormed on the Department claiming the Secretary of the Department of Education, Julia Keleher, is involved in shady financing behind closed doors. The controversy spun out in response to the Department’s recent awading of a grant to California-based nonprofit The Josephson Institute. The Department awarded the nonprofit a $16.9 million contract to teach values in Puerto Rico’s schools. The Josephson Institute describes its program, Tus Valores Cuentan, as “a character-building program for youth,” which also seeks to promote “ethics and transparency in government.” The Josephson Institute describes their mission on their website: “Our goal is to increase ethical commitment, competence, and practice in all segments of society. As a nonpartisan and nonsectarian 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, the Institute is funded by individual donations, foundations and corporate grants, fees and contributions for services, and sales of educational resources.”

Upon hearing of the Department’s awarding of the contract, local media outlets quickly jumped to conclusions and assumed political misbehavior on the part of Secretary Keleher and the Department as a whole.

Upon hearing of the Department’s awarding of the contract, local media outlets quickly jumped to conclusions and assumed political misbehavior on the part of Secretary Keleher and the Department as a whole. An article by The Hill cited Secretary Keleher’s personal experience in selling educational consulting services to argue she runs a money-driven, corrupt administration. The piece went on to describe her hefty salary as further evidence of “educational funds wasted.” While media outlets have the right to be wary of where government funds are directed and to whom they might benefit, coverage of the Josephson Institute grant have been predominantly skewed against the Department without any basis of evidence for said corruption. As a result of the controversy, the contract was reportedly cancelled in May.

In an interview with Keleher, Puerto Rican media outlet Metro questioned the purpose of the Institute’s Tus Valores Cuentan program. In the interview, Metro referred to the Institute as a “company”, ignoring its nonprofit status and assuming the organization makes a profit. Puerto Rican newspaper El Nuevo Dia also incorrectly refers to the nonprofit as a “corporation” and brought up past meetings between the Department of Education and the Institute to insinuate the sense of shady, closed-door agreements. Still, there is no evidence to be found to support the validity of such broad claims. Since the government’s decision to cancel the contract, little is known about the department’s reasoning for withdrawing the contract other than media controversy.

Secretary Keleher was recently put in the media spotlight for her advocacy of charter schools in the islands. Critics argue that “school choice” is used as a cover for education entrepreneurs to benefit from a paradoxically more centralized, but privatized school system. Naturally, citizens have reason to question the motivations of Keleher’s grant to the Josephson Institute, and should inquire what this “values” program entails. Local Puerto Rican media sources have criticized Keleher for making unnecessary interventions in schooling. When reporters asked why she chose to invest in Tus Valores Cuentan, she answered that the current school system lacked the leadership to instill values. When another reporter questioned Keleher’s choice of contract, she blunted responded, “Porque si”– “just because.” This raised eyebrows among corruption watchdogs. Yet, statements such as this one issued by Keleher have been blown out of proportion and have been equated to evidence of corruption. Without providing any factual evidence, reporters have jumped to explain the granting of this contract– and Keleher’s limited public statements on it — as proof of financial foul play.

When another reporter questioned Keleher’s choice of contract, she blunted responded, “Porque si”

The Department’s lack of transparency regarding the contract has justifiably raised concerns over the conditions of the grant and the administration’s motives for choosing the Josephson Institute as its awardee. Yet, media outlets have jumped to sensationalize the issue as a corruption scandal without providing tangible evidence of financial wrongdoings. While any federal grant of such a degree is deserving of thorough public investigation, reporters have unfairly washed over the Institute’s status as a legal nonprofit by mistakenly assuming it to be a corporate profiting entity. Media coverage has been too quick to point fingers at the Department of Education and its Secretary Julia Keleher for engaging in corruption, without providing a holistic look at the nonprofit and its relation to the Department. Future updates about why the contract was cancelled– and potential leaks hinting at either the validity or falsehood of media corruption claims– remain to be seen.