UPDATED APRIL 9
Gov. Ricardo Rosselló signed the bill into law on March 29. For more details, see below.
Puerto Rico’s legislature has approved a major education bill that will overhaul the island’s educational system and pave the way for vouchers, as well as schools intended to resemble charters.
The legislation, which passed the Senate Monday and the House on Tuesday, would break the island’s system, which is currently comprised of one unified school district, into seven different regions where local officials would have more control. It would also set a guaranteed per-pupil spending figure—in a previous interview before the bill was introduced, Secretary of Education Julia Keleher said the legislation would solve what she called serious fluctuations in that figure between schools.
And the bill matches a separate fiscal plan submitted by Gov. Ricardo Rosselló by consolidating school staff in fewer buildings. That fiscal plan calls for roughly 300 public schools to be closed, although the plan has yet to win final approval.
Rosselló and Keleher have argued the system is in drastic need of big changes, given the island’s financial crises and struggling school system. They’ve also said the plan will bring more attention to students and less on adult concerns. But the school closure plan, along with the proposal to expand choice in Puerto Rico, has drawn fierce opposition from the Asociación de Maestros de Puerto Rico, the island’s teachers’ union that represents 28,000 active teachers. They argue the plan will cause an exodus of teachers and students from the island and severely disrupt neighborhood schools.
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, as well as Democratic Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, oppose the plan too. (The Puerto Rican union is an affiliate of the AFT.)
The legislature approved the bill exactly six months after Hurricane Maria struck the island and upended the U.S. territory’s public schools. Both Keleher and Rosselló backed the initial education reform bill introduced several weeks ago. The governor congratulated lawmakers when the House passed the bill:
Agradezco al presidente de la Cámara @JohnnyMndez36; al presidente de la Comisión de Educación @guillermiranda2; y otros legisladores como @TATACHARBONIER y @junerivera2016 que aprobaron la Transformación Educativa. Facilitaron un gran paso para el futuro del estudiantado.
— Ricardo Rossello (@ricardorossello) March 20, 2018
In an interview Wednesday, Keleher said that beyond the high-profile measures to boost school choice, the bill would help improve decision-making power at the local level, while also creating “a big framework that puts [in] the corner posts that define the vision for how the system should operate.”
“The idea of having all the school buildings under one strategic plan developed by the secretary is one huge step forward,” she said.
The legislation also guarantees that 70 percent of the island’s education budget must go to local schools, Keleher said. In practice, she said that should work out to a per-pupil spending figure of about $6,400 per student. It also reaffirms teachers’ rights to form unions and collectively bargain.
The Senate bill also approved by the House contains caps on the new school choice programs proposed by the governor and education secretary.
The voucher program, called the Free School Selection Program, will be capped at 3 percent of students in the first year they’re instituted, or 9,900 students and 5 percent in the second year, according to El Vocero newspaper. (Right now, the island has roughly 320,000 students, although estimating enrollment has been difficult given Maria’s impact.)
And El Nuevo Dia reported Monday that the Senate bill will restrict the share of “alianza” (charter) schools to 10 percent of all public schools operating on the island.
“This fight is far from over. We are disappointed the powers that be in Puerto Rico have bought the wrongheaded DeVos and Trump spin that charters and vouchers are a panacea,” Weingarten said in a statement Tuesday.
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