Court Decision Paves Way for Puerto Rico School Closures

Puerto Rico Education Secretary Julia Keleher works at her makeshift headquarters in the convention center in San Juan last October after Hurricane Maria struck the island.
Puerto Rico Education Secretary Julia Keleher works at her makeshift headquarters in the convention center in San Juan last October after Hurricane Maria struck the island.
—Swikar Patel/Education Week-File
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The Supreme Court for Puerto Rico has upheld the process behind the U.S. territory’s move to close hundreds of public schools before the start of the upcoming school year.

Monday’s ruling validated the Puerto Rico Department of Education’s decision to close nine schools in two communities west of the capital, San Juan. It appears to clear the way for the department to shut down 263 schools this summer.

The island’s government, led by Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, welcomed Monday’s decision by the island’s top court, saying that it recognized factors such as Puerto Rico’s critical financial situation that led the government to close schools.

The department’s official announcement in April that it would shut down schools due to budget constraints as well as declining enrollment has triggered significant controversy on the island.

The teachers’ union and other groups in Puerto Rico protested the move and sued the department in Puerto Rican courts. They argued it would hurt communities and trigger more students and teachers to leave the island. After the Supreme Court ruling, the union president, Aida Díaz, did not rule out exploring more legal options to stop the closures, El Vocero newspaper reported.

The union, the Asociación de Maestros de Puerto Rico, has also questioned enrollment estimates provided by Puerto Rico’s education department.

Click here to see an interactive map of these school closures and their impact on the island.

Convergence of Factors

Last summer—before the 2017-18 school year, and before Hurricane Maria caused widespread devastation in Puerto Rico in September—the island closed nearly 180 public schools, also due to declining enrollment and financial woes. Before Maria struck, Puerto Rico’s island-wide school system had roughly 350,000 students in public schools, making it one of the largest school districts in the U.S.

“There was a methodical, uniform approach to doing this that did consider trying to get better outcomes for all kids and trying to consider the greater common good,” Puerto Rico Secretary of Education Julia Keleher said in a Tuesday interview.

However, the Puerto Rico Civil Rights Commission takes a different view of the issue.

In a report issued Monday, the same day as the Supreme Court’s ruling, the commission criticized the secretary and her department for leaving the public out of the decisionmaking process. While the commission did not directly oppose the ultimate decision to close schools, it stated that there should be a one-year moratorium on these closures so that there can be a better transition process.

Among the main conclusions from the civil rights commission’s report on the school closure process, translated from Spanish:

  • Children’s right to a public education was violated by carrying out a disorganized process and without guidance or consultation.
  • Academic achievement was not given an appropriate weight for the closing of schools. ... In this analysis, the effects of school closings on special education students were not considered either. In the whole process, the socioeconomic conditions of the students and their effects were not considered.
  • The participation of the students, their parents and teachers, and the community was not incorporated in the determination of the closure of the schools, and they were excluded from the process.
  • Proposals to take into consideration additional criteria in the process of closing schools from the [teachers’ union], the communities, the students, the parents, the mayors, and even the Legislative Assembly were rejected by the Department of Education.

The Asociación de Maestros de Puerto Rico held up the commission’s findings as proof that the education department had mishandled the process.

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Asked about the report’s conclusions, Keleher said that it would have been disingenuous for her to tell members of the public they would take the lead on the issue of school closures. In reality, Keleher said, she had to balance finite resources and other factors beyond her control when deciding not so much which schools to close, but which to keep open.

“If a school is in a remote location, I have to leave it where it is. I can’t close it, which creates constraints in another decisionmaking process,” Keleher said, adding that because of budget cuts totaling $350 million for schools in the upcoming year, “I don’t have a lot of options.”

She praised her interactions with the civil rights commission about the closures, saying the exchanges between them were “very open.”

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