Puerto Rico’s governor-elect has announced that he will pick the head of the island’s teachers’ union to lead the U.S. territory’s department of education.
Governor-elect Pedro Pierluisi said Wednesday that Elba Aponte Santos is his nominee to lead the agency. Aponte is the president of the Asociación de Maestros de Puerto Rico (AMPR), an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. She has led the AMPR for the past year and is also an AFT vice president. If confirmed by Puerto Rico’s Senate, she will replace Eligio Hernández Pérez, who has led the department since last year and congratulated Aponte Santos on her nomination.
One of her biggest challenges will be to help Puerto Rico’s schools address the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, which have compounded the problems for the school system caused by Hurricane Maria and recent earthquakes, as well as long-term fiscal woes.
Her nomination represents a notable shift in the leadership of the island’s education system from a little more than three years ago, when Maria struck the island. The education secretary at the time, Julia Keleher, closed hundreds of public schools in response to declining enrollment and supported changes to the island’s laws in 2018 that for the first time permitted charter schools and private school vouchers in Puerto Rico. The union opposed these efforts.
Keleher resigned in the spring of 2019, and a few months later was arrested on fraud charges; she was arrested again early this year on charges, also on fraud charges. She pleaded not guilty to these charges. (On Tuesday, a federal judge denied a motion by Keleher to dismiss all charges in the indictment related to her second arrest.) Meanwhile, one of Keleher’s biggest critics during her tenure, AMPR’s then-president Aida Díaz, resigned from her post last year after reports about her husband’s education contracts and possible conflicts of education.
The AFT’s website says Aponte Santos is a special education teacher and describes her as “a fierce defender of public education on the island.”