A shuttered elementary school in Toa Baja, Puerto Rico, west of San Juan. The government recently announced more than 300 public schools will be closed.
A shuttered elementary school in Toa Baja, Puerto Rico, west of San Juan. The government recently announced more than 300 public schools will be closed. Alvin Baez/Reuters

Pro-statehood leaders are re-envisioning the territory’s schools in the wake of Hurricane Maria. But the privatization process started before the storm hit.

SU Matrullas is a small K-9 public school in the mountains of central Puerto Rico. After Hurricane Maria roared over the island last September, the school was without power for five months. Recently, the school’s director gave up hope of reconnecting to the territory’s electricity grid and decided instead to rely on a microgrid—a system of solar panels and battery storage—to keep the lights on. SU Matrullas’s plight is hardly unique: Hundreds of other schools still remain without electricity. Other damage is lingering, too, from crumbling roofs and water damage to widespread mold. And the system has lost an estimated 14,000 students who have moved to the mainland U.S. for their education since the storm.

Faced with a dire situation, Puerto Rico’s leaders are using post-storm recovery as an opportunity to dramatically overhaul the territory’s education system. Governor Ricardo Rosselló recently announced that more than 300 public schools out of 1,100 will close, and he outlined changes he wants to make to the system, including instituting charter schools and using private school vouchers—similar to the practices touted by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

This might sound a little familiar: After Hurricane Katrina, the Louisiana state government embarked on a major educational revamp in New Orleans and made the majority of its public schools into charters—a move that remains controversial.* Today, more than 90 percent of the city’s students attend charter schools.

But the situation in Puerto Rico actually has its roots in the 1990s, when the island’s conservative leaders began to promote private schools and (unsuccessfully) pushed for vouchers. Even before the storm, many schools were closing. Between 2010 and 2015, 150 public schools were shuttered, and in May 2017—four months before Maria struck—officials announced that another 179 closures would follow.

It was a different kind of storm—the financial crisis of 2008—that triggered that round of public school closings, according to University of Connecticut political scientist Charles Venator-Santiago. The loss of the government’s authority to finance schools boosted the pro-statehood movement, which supports making Puerto Rico’s structures similar to those on the mainland to make the territory a more attractive state candidate. Today, Rosselló leads the pro-statehood New Progressive Party, which currently has a majority in both the Puerto Rican House and Senate.

Puerto Rico’s Governor Ricardo Rosselló meets with President Trump in October 2017, a month after Hurricane Maria. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

It may be sensible to close some rural public schools with low enrollments, but Venator-Santiago, who studies U.S. territorial law, believes that Rosselló’s call for more charter schools and vouchers is at base a strategy to curry favor with the U.S. and obtain more federal funding, as well as cater to allies in Puerto Rico by employing them in new teacher and superintendent positions. The championing of vouchers also gratifies conservative religious groups that support religious—mainly Catholic—private schools on the island, he said.

Rosselló’s education reform is part of a larger push for U.S.-friendly privatization in Puerto Rico. The governor recently announced plans to privatize the territory’s public power company, saying that the move would improve service and reduce costs. Months before the hurricane, the government outlined plans to sell off seaports, parking spaces, student housing, and more to private companies.

But privatization faces stiff resistance from Puerto Rico’s teachers’ union, Asociación de Maestros de Puerto Rico, which has called for more funds and attention for public schools instead of charters and private institutions. “In the aftermath of hurricanes Irma and Maria, [Rosselló] needs to invest in public schools to support and stabilize kids’ learning, not abandon and privatize schools,” President Aida Diaz wrote in a statement early this month.  

Puerto Rico expert Yarimar Bonilla of Rutgers University, a critic of the privatization policies, said that pro-statehood leaders don’t have an interest in keeping the territory’s structures strong, given their end goal. “They are not interested in building a strong state or in creating an independent economy,” she said. “This is why they are not concerned about U.S. companies taking the lead in the recovery…In the education system, this means that profit margins guide everything, from where schools are placed to what is taught in them.”

The saga of New Orleans’ charter system is perhaps both a model and a cautionary tale for Puerto Rico. Despite the fears of critics, test scores have improved and segregation—which charters have been known to exacerbate—has not worsened, said Tulane University’s Douglas Harris, who studies the city’s charter schools.

At the same time, the new system remains deeply controversial among longtime city residents and teachers, because, among other issues, it has meant the end of neighborhood-based schools. The city also sowed dissent by firing a significant number of seasoned black educators and replacing them with young white teachers in the overhaul.

Puerto Rico’s Secretary of Education Julia Keleher has said that the territory’s reforms will not be as drastic as what was done in Louisiana. But she has called New Orleans a “point of reference” with respect to its new school system. And with Betsy DeVos helping Puerto Rico’s leaders strategize—she has met with Rosselló and Keleher, and her deputy assistant secretary, Jason Botel, has been communicating regularly with Keleher for months—the island’s public school teachers and their allies have good cause to be uneasy about the future.

It’s also worth pointing out the limits of using New Orleans as a model for education reform in Puerto Rico. The territory, for instance, has a much larger student population—some 330,000 students versus New Orleans’ 46,000, spread across an area the size of Connecticut and with ten times the number of schools—making reform more complicated. “In New Orleans,” said Harris, “we had an intense concentration of interest in a very small place.”

But Harris does note one New Orleans strategy Puerto Rico might learn from: Louisiana didn’t give charters full autonomy. After seeing how the system worked initially, it shifted to a centralized enrollment and expulsion system in order to regulate schools’ student makeup. The state also restricted transfers, to limit shuffling across schools, and mandated that elementary and middle schools provide free transportation so that students have an easier time attending school.

“When problems came up at certain schools, the state came in again and took control,” said Harris. “It didn’t let the charters operate as if in a complete free market system.”

*CORRECTION: This sentence was revised to clarify the role of the state government in New Orleans school reform.

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