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School & District Management

Puerto Rico’s Education Secretary Steps Down After Divisive Tenure

By Andrew Ujifusa — April 09, 2019 4 min read
Julia Keleher’s tenure as head of Puerto Rico’s islandwide school system included overseeing its recovery in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, as well as controversies over school closures and school choice.

Puerto Rico Secretary of Education Julia Keleher stepped down last week as the island’s top K-12 official—and just two days later gave up a new post where she was to be a paid adviser at the island’s education department.

The new education secretary for Puerto Rico on an interim basis is Eleuterio Álamo, who most recently oversaw the Puerto Rico education department’s San Juan regional office. He was named by Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, who had also picked Keleher as education secretary for the U.S. territory, a role she took on in January 2017.

Álamo appealed to Puerto Rico’s leadership because of his experience dealing with schools in San Juan, Puerto Rico’s capital and its largest city, and the complexity that work entails. Álamo said he was looking forward to continuing ongoing education reforms, according to the Associated Press.

After stepping down April 2, Keleher initially assumed the role of adviser for the department she previously led. She was to focus on the leadership transition and ongoing policy changes. Her $250,000 salary for that job was to have been paid by the island’s Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority—her salary as secretary had also been paid by that agency.

But she confirmed the end of her brand-new job in a text message on April 4, the same day that news reports from the island referred to a legislative inquiry into Keleher’s conduct while in office.

Last year, Keleher said she envisioned staying on as secretary for several more years.

“We’ve finished phase one. Phase two, the running of this, requires a different leader,” Keleher said in an interview last week of the government’s plan to revamp schools. “I’m more of a change agent. Now, what we need is someone to hold the course.”

Polarizing Figure

When Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico in September 2017, Keleher and other educators were confronted with a humanitarian crisis that crippled the island for months and presented a slew of dire problems for its public school system, which educated roughly 350,000 students before the storm and had been struggling academically and financially for years.

Keleher won praise from some quarters for her determination to revamp K-12. She focused on teachers’ professional development, getting more and better materials to classrooms, and forging closer connections between schools and the private sector.

Yet other policies she successfully pursued, such as a new law allowing charter schools and vouchers, as well as the closure of hundreds of schools on the heels of declining enrollment, drew her into frequent conflict with the island’s teachers’ unions. At a San Juan rally last summer in opposition to her record, protesters shouted, “Julia go home!” Keleher is not Puerto Rican.

Aida Díaz, the president of Asociación de Maestros de Puerto Rico (the island’s teachers’ union, which is affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers), told the Associated Press that she is not surprised by Keleher’s resignation. “She has created chaos,” Díaz said.

New Role

Keleher minimized her well-publicized friction with the union, saying that aside from school choice and school closures, she didn’t believe she had serious conflict with the labor group. She highlighted a recent announcement that she plans to institute a pay raise for teachers, for example.

However, those two major fights went to court, as the union sought in vain to stop both school closures and the law permitting charters and vouchers—one charter is open this school year in Puerto Rico, and two more are slated to start next year. The voucher program is also slated to start in the 2019-20 school year. And AFT President Randi Weingarten recently highlighted the push to oppose the spread of charters in Arecibo, west of San Juan.

There’s a ream of statistics that Keleher and her team have showcased to demonstrate the island’s progress during her two-year tenure. They include:

• Delivering 1.2 million textbooks and “digital resources” to classrooms covering core subjects;

• Increasing the number of nurses in schools from 32 to 430, with each nurse getting training in screening for trauma;

• Upgrading internet bandwidth at schools; and

• Distributing 150,000 laptops and tablets to schools.

One of the biggest remaining problems for the island’s public schools is their state of repair. In January, Keleher said it would ultimately cost $11 billion to bring damaged and deteriorating schools up to the necessary building standards.

“The school buildings are a real challenge,” Keleher said. “Not having a beautiful, modern, healthy, safe, engaging learning environment—that’s going to be a longer road.”

In the short term, Keleher said whether test scores rise is an important barometer for improving schools. Over the longer term, she wants to see greater connections develop between schools and the island’s business community.

Asked if she would have done anything differently if given a do over, Keleher responded, “I don’t have regrets. I think I learned a lot and I grew a lot as a person. If I had to do it all over again, I think I would like to take the time to create stronger, closer connections with each of the communities and understand their needs.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 10, 2019 edition of Education Week as Puerto Rico’s Education Secretary Steps Down After Divisive Tenure

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