Puerto Rico’s Education Department announced Thursday that it would close 283 public schools this summer in the face of plummeting student enrollment after Hurricane Maria.
The move would leave Puerto Rico with 828 public schools in a system that currently serves about 320,000 students, the Associated Press reported Thursday. Secretary of Education Julia Keleher said the closures were necessary to better serve the students who are in schools with relatively large enrollments, telling the AP that, “We know it’s a difficult and painful process. ... Our children deserve the best education that we are capable of giving them taking into account Puerto Rico’s fiscal reality.”
Enrollment in the U.S. territory’s schools was already on the decline before Maria struck Puerto Rico last September and upended the island’s school system. In the summer of 2017, the island closed 179 public schools. Before the hurricane, the island’s public K-12 enrollment was roughly 350,000 students. Many schools, Keleher said, are at less than 60 percent of capacity.
Keleher also said that there wouldn’t be teacher layoffs, and that teachers at schools designated for closure would be transferred to schools that are serving more students and will remain open. The school closures are also supposed to save the education department $150 million.
A spokeswoman for Puerto Rico’s education department didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
The Asociación de Maestros de Puerto Rico, the island’s teachers’ union that represents nearly 30,000 active teachers, immediately opposed the move.
“This is like killing 300 communities,” said Aida Díaz, the president of the Asociación de Maestros de Puerto Rico, in an interview with Education Week. “We’re going to have communities that are not going to have any schools. The only place they have to meet is the school.”
She added that she believed close to 4,000 teachers who don’t have tenure would leave their jobs, irrespective of Keleher’s pledge of no layoffs. Díaz also said that her union was exploring all possibilities to try to stop the schools from being closed.
Keleher noted that 500 schools on the island are at least 40 percent below capacity. She said that school closures would be relatively evenly distributed across different regions of the island.
“Closing the schools is part of a larger comprehensive effort to right size the system,” Keleher wrote in an email.
The secretary also rejected the idea that teachers would leave their jobs in droves rather than transfer to work at a different school.
“This has never happened. They want to keep their jobs. Teachers are concerned about that issue specifically and we are addressing it,” Keleher wrote.
The school closure plan is just one aspect of the growing conflict over Puerto Rico’s schools. Last month, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló signed a bill, which had Keleher’s backing, that would allow charter schools and vouchers within two years. Although there are caps imposed on both programs, the union quickly filed a lawsuit to stop the school choice expansion. The governor has also supported closing roughly 300 schools as part of a plan to shore up the island’s finances.
Go here for our reporting from Puerto Rico on the state of the island’s schools from earlier this year.
And for the list of schools slated to be closed by the department, see the list. The schools due to be closed are in the left-hand column.