Who’s leading Puerto Rico’s education department? The answers have changed very quickly in the past week. And their impact on the major changes underway for the island’s schools is unclear.
Last Tuesday, former Secretary of Education Julia Keleher announced that she was stepping down from her post, after stating late in 2018 that she planned to be on the job for years to come. Gov. Ricardo Rosselló announced the same day that Eleuterio Álamo, who had been running department’s San Juan regional office, was taking over as interim secretary, which Keleher had previously confirmed. Keleher, meanwhile, initially said she was moving into the role of an adviser at the department to help guide Álamo’s work.
Subsequently, Keleher announced that she had decided to also relinquish her new role as an adviser, amid news that the legislature was conducting an inquiry into her leadership of the department.
Then on Monday of this week, the governor pulled Álamo’s name from consideration before the U.S. territory’s Senate. Later that day, the Senate instead confirmed Eligio Hernández Pérez as the new interim education secretary—Pérez was previously a deputy secretary at the department. However, it’s unclear at this point how long Pérez will stay on as interim secretary, and whether Rosselló will again push to appoint Álamo, or someone else, to the secretary’s position on a permanent basis.
Rosselló publicized a meeting he had with Pérez in the latter’s new role on Tuesday, stating that the two were working on plans under the education reform law Puerto Rico’s legislature approved last year that included provisions allowing charter schools and vouchers on the island:
Trazando el seguimiento a varias iniciativas medulares de la Reforma Educativa con el secretario interino de Educación, Eligio Hernández y el equipo de @EDUCACIONPR. #NuevaEducación @RicardoLlerandi @ErikRolonPR pic.twitter.com/2QMqTLwKW0
— Ricardo Rossello (@ricardorossello) April 9, 2019
Keleher expressed confidence last week that the major changes she and the governor helped put in motion, spurred in large part by Hurricane Maria’s devastating impact on Puerto Rico in 2017, would continue. But it remains to be seen whether the number and nature of charter schools in Puerto Rico, for example, shifts dramatically with Keleher out of the leadership picture, particularly if Álamo does not reemerge as a nominee for education secretary. Only two charter schools are due to open next year, but discussions were underway for a few dozen more to begin operations before Keleher departed.
The Asociación de Maestros de Puerto Rico, the teachers’ union, was a high-profile opponent of Keleher on controversial issues involving school choice as well as the closure of more than 250 public schools on the island last summer. Last week, the union (which is affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers) said it hoped Álamo’s move to take over the department would be a “reset.” The union added that it had had a “professional and respectful” relationship with him during his time at the department.
It’s also unclear how the recent volatility at the top of the school system will impact the department’s relationships with the U.S. Department of Education and members of Congress, as well as nonprofit groups and philanthropic foundations that have gotten involved in the island’s educational future.
“It’s never good when there are three different people within the same week who are supposed to be the secretary of education. Nobody’s going to argue that’s a good thing,” AFT President Randi Weingarten said Tuesday. “But it’s good that Julia is not there.”
Weingarten also said she was pleasantly surprised that to replace Keleher, Rosselló had selected two people with lengthy experience on the island. (She said that Aida Díaz, the Puerto Rican union’s president, has had a “positive working relationship” with Pérez in the past.) Weingarten said she’s still troubled by how the roll-out of charter schools, potentially at the expense of traditional public schools, has played out on the island so far.
“Both Mr. Alamo and [Mr. Pérez] seem to have real, long-term relationships with the educators on the island. And therefore it seems like the governor is looking for a reset and is looking change the dynamics that have gone on in the last two years of disruption, disruption, disruption that Julia has done,” she said.
Puerto Rico’s public schools educate more than 300,000 students, although that figure fluctuates over the course of the year and has dropped from the roughly 350,000 students enrolled in the system before Hurricane Maria. And the school system still faces major challenges more than 18 months after the storm; repairs to the island’s schools alone will cost $11 billion, Keleher said last year.
It’s also important to remember that Rosselló is up for reelection next year in Puerto Rico.
Photo: Students arrive at Escuela Jesus T. Piñero in Cidra, Puerto Rico, on August 13, 2018, for the first day of school in the island-wide district. (Swikar Patel/Education Week)