By Correspondent Kavitha Cardoza
Until this year, charter schools were illegal in Puerto Rico.
But in the months since Hurricane Maria struck and brought widespread upheaval, Governor Ricardo Rosselló signed an education reform law that will bring sweeping changes to Puerto Rico schools.
Among them: decentralizing the island’s education department, small increases in teacher salaries, and allowing families to use public money to attend private and religious schools. The bill had more than 600 amendments, but introducing charter schools has probably been the most controversial change.
The first charter school, called ‘Vimenti,’ (which means lifelong learning) is run by the Boys and Girls Clubs of Puerto Rico. They are celebrating their 50th year on the island and the leaders of the nonprofit say they have a three-pronged approach to education.
The first prong is rigorous academics—the school’s curriculum is based on that of the most prestigious school on the island, St. John’s. The school’s leaders say they are recruiting the best teachers by paying them one and a half times the pay of regular teachers in Puerto Rico. And with support from private donors and wealthy foundations, the charter school will spend three times the amount per pupil than regular public schools spend on students.
The second prong is a focus on health. Eduardo Carrera Morales, the CEO of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Puerto Rico, says of the 58 kindergarten and 1st graders at the school, health screenings revealed that nearly half of them needed eyeglasses but didn’t have them.
And the school’s third prong is helping students’ parents get jobs. The average annual salary for people in the area is $5,000. Morales says Vimenti has a “mock” bedroom and lobby, where parents practice how to make beds and answer the phone, so they can eventually get jobs in the hotel and hospitality sector.
Both of Puerto Rico’s teachers’ unions and many residents believe that charters will “privatize” public education and they point to the nearly complete replacement of traditional, district run schools in New Orleans by charters after Hurricane Katrina as evidence. But perhaps because charters had not existed in Puerto Rico before, there are a lot of misconceptions about them there.
Gov. Rosselló has promised that charter schools will be held to the same standards of accountability as the island’s public schools. Starting next year, any student in Puerto Rico can apply to get in this school. Students will be picked by lottery and it is free for families. Charter schools are capped at 10% of the public schools on the island. There are at least two charter schools already approved to open during the 2019-20 school year.
Read and watch Education Week’s comprehensive coverage of Puerto Rico’s schools
A version of this news article first appeared in the Charters & Choice blog.