Puerto Rico will close 179 public schools this summer as the U.S. territory grapples with an economic crisis.
Critics warn that the cost-cutting plan could hasten the departure of families and veteran teachers, bringing an already weakened public education system to its knees.
The mass school closure—which could displace close to 30,000 students—is the largest in Puerto Rico’s history and comes as the island deals with an estimated $120 billion in debt and pension liabilities.
Since the budget plan does not call for immediate teacher and staff layoffs, the school closures are expected to save the government only between $7 million and $10 million—essentially utility costs.
In a prepared statement, Puerto Rico’s Education Secretary Julia Keleher described the closure plan as a “unique opportunity to improve the system” and said the decisions were carried out with “students as a priority.”
Keleher, a former U.S. Department of Education manager and Washington-based education consultant, worked with Puerto Rico in both roles, helping educators develop school improvement strategies and comply with federal laws. Education Week could not reach Keleher for comment for this story.
With more families and educators moving to the mainland U.S. in search of work and stability, the future of public education on the island may be at a crossroads,
“Maybe the priority shouldn’t be to close schools and balance the budget on the backs of children,” said Julian Vasquez Heilig, a professor of education leadership at California State University, Sacramento who has studied and written about education in Puerto Rico.
“The adults are trying to cover for their mistakes on the backs of the children and, essentially, harming the future of the populace of the island,” Heilig said.
The proposed cuts could go deeper. An oversight board appointed to guide the U.S. territory back to fiscal health has recommended closing roughly 300 schools and mandating two furlough days per month for teachers and four for support staff.
“It’s not going to get better, It’s going to be worse,” said Aida Díaz, president of the 29,000-member Puerto Rico’s Association of Teachers. “We have to prepare [children] for the future. If we don’t take care of them, we won’t have a future.”
Declining Student Enrollment
School closures have become more common on the island of 3 million people. Between 2010 and 2015, the education department shut down roughly 150 schools. Even with the slate of closures and the fleeing families, the island will have 1,113 schools for an estimated 365,000 students come August.
Over the last decade, the island has seen a 27 percent enrollment drop in its public schools, according to a report on restructuring Puerto Rico’s education system by the Boston Consulting Group. In that same period, the teaching corps shrunk by 18 percent.
The Boston Consulting Group report recommended consolidating schools. While acknowledging that the closures are inevitable, teachers’ union leaders are fearful that administrators will use the proverbial budget axe, rather than a more precise tool, to decide when and where to shut down schools.
The wrong moves could leave families without transportation with no access to education, they say.
In statements, Keleher has argued that closures will focus on underutilized buildings and pave the way for the district to offer a more comprehensive education to students. Many schools on the island are still without Internet access and serviceable computers.
“They will justify closing schools by using this language of efficiency and quality, but it actually has nothing to do with efficiency or quality,” Heilig said.
While the crisis has rocked Puerto Rico, it’s marked boom times for mainland schools that need bilingual teachers.
Puerto Rico, where teachers are already U.S. citizens, is a rich recruiting ground for teachers who can teach in English and Spanish.
The teachers already understand American culture and can often have their salaries doubled or tripled by taking jobs in the United States. Teachers in Puerto Rico earn $21,000 per year on average. Dallas—where the base starting salary for teachers is around $50,000—employs about 300 teachers from Puerto Rico, a number that’s swelled in recent years.
“For us, it’s always paid off,” said Jordan Carlton, the talent acquisition manager for the Dallas school district. “The teachers are able to step in from Day One.”
Carlton has noticed that more districts are heading to the island, looking to reel in veteran teaching talent.
“It’s different than just getting a [first-year] teacher,” Carlton said. “It’s someone who has that experience, has that knowledge and they’re able to work with our bilingual students.”
The island lost 3,000 public school teachers in 2015, Díaz said, and departures this year could top that figure. The recruitment from mainland schools has depleted the teaching ranks in crucial subjects such as English, math, and science, she added,
“It’s the perfect confluence of districts desperately needing [teachers] who can work with Spanish-speaking immigrant students and long-term, lifer English-language learners,” Heilig said, “What that has meant is really a brain drain for the island for teachers looking for better pastures in the United States.”
A version of this article appeared in the May 30, 2017 edition of Education Week as Amid Fiscal Crisis, Puerto Rico Shuts Down Scores of Schools