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Key Democrat: Congress Wouldn’t Find Puerto Rico School Conditions Acceptable on Mainland

By Alyson Klein — September 27, 2018 4 min read
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Traumatized students desperately in need of mental health counseling. Schools without electricity. School buildings that leak or have mold. Missing desks and chairs.

That’s the picture of life in schools in hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands painted by witnesses at a forum organized by House Education and the Workforce Committee Democrats. Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., has called as recently as last week for hearings on the federal response to Hurricane Maria last year and how it is impacting education on the islands.

So far, Republicans have declined to hold such a hearing. So Scott organized his own.

President Donald Trump has praised his administration’s response to the hurricane in Puerto Rico. But Scott said no one would allow for such conditions in a U.S. state.

“The federal government’s response to Hurricane Maria was severely inadequate,” Scott said. “Of the U.S. Virgin Island’s 32 public schools, eight are condemned, which forced students to attend other schools on a double-session schedule. This means students only received instruction for half the day. Many of Puerto Rico’s schools in operation are still without power a year after the storm. I doubt Congress would find those conditions acceptable in a mainland U.S. state struck by a storm.”

And Scott has big concerns about some of the education redesign efforts proposed by Puerto Rico’s Secretary of Education Julia Keleher and her team. Keleher has closed hundreds of schools, due to declining enrollment that was exacerbated by Hurricane Maria. Puerto Rico has also introduced charter schools and worked to create a voucher program.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and others have praised those efforts. And some believe they will strengthen the island’s schools over the long haul.

But Scott has major questions about the direction of the changes.

“A new education law in Puerto Rico that was pushed through in the aftermath of the storm has raised important questions about whether ideologically-driven reforms are taking precedent over the stability of public schools, teachers, and student,” he said.

Aida Diaz, the president of the Asociación de Maestros de Puerto Rico, which represents Puerto Rico’s teachers, was especially upset about the school closures. In the rural part of the island, she said, schools are often the center of the community.

“Many schools that were in good condition were closed; and now, instead of getting those schools into excellent condition, they have been closed and new schools are being constructed,” she said at the hearing. “The money that is being used to build new schools could be used to reduce class size; currently many classes have 35 students. Or the money could be spent on books or computers—many of our schools lost all their books and computers, and they have not been replaced.”

Diaz said that 3,000 teachers have lost their jobs due to the closures. She’d like to see them retrained as school psychologists or counselors so that they can help children cope with trauma.

And Carol Callwood, the president of the St. Thomas-St. John Federation of Teachers, gave a similar picture of schools in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Only six of the islands 13 school buildings are open right now, she said.

“Many of our schools that are open still don’t have desks or chairs, books or basic supplies. We are told that these things have been ordered and/or are in transit,” she said. “Many of our families left the islands after the hurricanes, and then returned over the summer months—based on the promise of open schools with no double sessions. Now these families are extremely angry.
They have lost trust in the school system.”

Rep. Nydia Velázquez, D-N.Y., who co-chaired the hearing with Scott, signaled that Democrats, who hope to take the majority in the House after the midterm elections, will be looking to see whether federal funding is getting to the people most in need of it, and how schools are recovering from the storm.

“Come November and starting in January, we are going to be holding hearings to get the bottom of what is going on in Puerto Rico,” she said.

Want more on Puerto Rico? My co-blogger, Andrew Ujifusa, has you more than covered.

A recent video look at education on the island after the storm:

Some basic facts and stats on the school system:

Student perspectives:

A look at schools Puerto Rico closed over the summer:

An overview of the island this school year during the first week of school:

And our full collection of Puerto Rico stories here:

Photo: Erin Irwin for Education Week

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