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Puerto Rico Is in Turmoil, But Dramatic Changes to Its Schools Might Endure

By Andrew Ujifusa — July 18, 2019 4 min read
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Puerto Rico’s political leadership might be about to crumble. So what could that mean for the island’s school system?

Anger in the U.S. territory aimed at Gov. Ricardo Rosselló reached a new intensity Wednesday as police fired tear gas at San Juan protesters upset over leaked messages—including derogatory comments about the teachers’ union—between the governor and several of his top officials. Although the governor so far has resisted pressure to resign, it’s not clear how much longer he’ll last.

Rosselló already had a schools-related crisis on his hands following the arrest of his former education secretary, Julia Keleher, on fraud charges related to Puerto Rico Department of Education contracts. Keleher pleaded not guilty to the charges earlier this week.

All this volatility has put the spotlight on the major policy changes on the island over nearly the past two years, particularly since Hurricane Maria in September 2017. You might think that those dramatic shifts could wither away or get reversed by officials now that Keleher and then Rosselló are tainted to varying degrees. But the reality might be more complicated than that.

Quick refresher: In 2018, Puerto Rico’s legislature passed and Rosselló signed a major education reform bill into law that permitted the first charter schools on the island to open, as well as a new voucher program. Those parts of the law probably drew the most attention, as well as an unsuccessful legal challenge from the island’s teachers’ union. But the law made several other major changes to Puerto Rico’s K-12 system, including a new floor for per-pupil spending and a reorganization of the island’s education bureaucracy. Before 2018, schools were part of a single, island-wide district, but now there are seven regional offices that are designed to act more like independent districts.

Without votes in the legislature, those changes wouldn’t have come to pass. It’s unclear what will happen to Puerto Rican politics over the next several months—elections to pick the next governor and members of the legislature aren’t slated to take place until 2020. But charter schools, vouchers, and other changes rooted in that 2018 law won’t necessarily vanish just because its most public champions are swallowed up by political tumult. (The governor is part of the New Progressive Party in Puerto Rico, while the other major political party there is the Popular Democratic Party.)

See Our In-Depth Coverage: Putting Puerto Rico’s Schools Back on Track

While Keleher triggered an intense controversy by closing more than 250 schools in 2018, it’s not as if the territory has the kind of easy cash on hand to undo her decision and reopen those schools in response to popular demand. Remember also that the island closed nearly 180 schools on Keleher’s watch, shortly before Maria struck the island. Related point: Unless there’s a huge reversal of recent demographic trends, Puerto Rico is likely to continue to see its total population decline in the coming years, which doesn’t really help any argument for reopening the scores of public schools Keleher shut down. From 2017-18 to 2018-19, Puerto Rico’s public schools saw enrollment dip by more than 12 percent.

What’s on the other side of the coin? It’s uncertain that the school choice initiatives in particular will grow at a rapid pace.

Only one charter school opened for the 2018-19 school year in Puerto Rico; this year the education department approved applications from three more—but two of them won’t open until the 2020-21 school year, according to El Nuevo Dia newspaper. Keleher and the unions fought earlier this year over the possibility that several traditional public schools might change into charters, but the union appears to have won that battle at least for now. Under the 2018 reform law, no more than 10 percent of Puerto Rico’s schools can be “alianza” (charter) schools.

Despite that enrollment decline we mentioned earlier, the island’s K-12 system still educates roughly 300,000 students. It will take more than four charter schools to significantly alter the makeup of public schools in Puerto Rico. Four schools represent roughly 0.4 percent of the island’s total number of public schools.

We reached out to the island’s education department to see how many students have signed up so far to participate in the voucher program, officially known as the Free School Selection program, which will begin in the 2019-20 school year. We’ll update this post if we hear back. Voucher enrollment is capped at 1 percent of public school students for the upcoming school year, with the cap eventually rising to 3 percent.

The education department might influence the impact of these programs, depending on how aggressively it markets charters and vouchers to parents, and how it approaches approving new charters. The department seems to be relying at least in part on Florida’s work in the charter school sector as it considers applications and develops policies for them.

Video: In 2018, Education Week reported on Puerto Rico’s first charter school, called Vimenti.

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