A leading U.S. Department of Education official believes big changes to Puerto Rico’s school system, including a new law permitting charter schools and vouchers, represent a courageous and important step forward after Hurricane Maria.
Frank Brogan, the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education under Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, praised Puerto Rico Secretary of Education Julia Keleher and other government leaders for successfully paving the way for charter schools and vouchers, which were both previously illegal in the U.S. territory. In remarks at a Heritage Foundation event Wednesday about school choice in Puerto Rico, he said they would ultimately help improve the long-struggling school system there and provide dividends for the island’s future.
After Maria struck the island last year, Keleher spearheaded the drive to create school choice on the island, as well as increase teacher pay and break up the island’s education bureaucracy—Puerto Rico is under a single school district but now has seven new regions designed to bolster local autonomy for school leaders. Vouchers will be available for the 2019-2020 school year. The first charter school opened in August, and you can watch an Education Week video about that school at the top of this post.
“It will in its own way be a laboratory of observation for people all over the country who are going to look to Puerto Rico as a beacon of example of what change can bring,” Brogan said, “especially when you’re in a position to put down at least temporarily the forces who would keep it exactly the way it has always been.”
Those “forces” Brogan referenced consist of mainly of Puerto Rico’s teachers’ union, which fought the creation of “alianza” (essentially charter-like) schools in Puerto Rico. They and others argued the law that created the choice measures would permanently cripple traditional public schools, cause many teachers to leave the island, and lead to a wave of education privatization on the island. Ultimately, the Puerto Rico Supreme Court upheld the law as written.
Puerto Rico closed more than 250 schools over the past summer, and the start of the 2018-19 school was marked by controversy over those closures and lingering uncertainty about school repairs and other aspects of the system. Keleher has highlighted her efforts to ensure schools get nurses, social workers, and other new staff this year, along with new and improved classroom materials.
Brogan said that the Education Department will work “side by side” with Keleher and others on the island: “We like everyone will be watching them, learning from them.” It will be interesting to see how DeVos, a long-time school choice advocate who’s pushed hard (with very limited success) on the issue as secretary, supports or handles Puerto Rico’s efforts on charters and vouchers going forward.
The ESSA Gauntlet
In addition to school choice in Puerto Rico, Brogan talked briefly about where he sees the Every Student Succeeds Act going.
The assistant secretary had a two-part message about the main federal education law. On the one hand, he echoed DeVos and others who’ve said ESSA represents the long-standing and bipartisan desire to reduce Washington’s role in education, and let states and local education leaders take greater control.
On the other hand, Brogan also said this desire for flexibility outside the Beltway “doesn’t mean you jettison any expectation in the world of accountability and monitoring.” The public still has a right to know how students are faring in public schools, he stressed, and it’s up to states and others to prove they can live up to ESSA’s promise.
“Just because it’s been provided doesn’t mean that people are going to pick that gauntlet up,” Brogan said.
DeVos has approved ESSA plans from all 50 states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia. (The last state to get approved was Florida, where Brogan previously served as state education commissioner and lieutenant governor). But the federal government’s role in those plans isn’t over.