Puerto Rico’s Schools Are in Tumult, and Not Just Because of Hurricane Maria


By Patricia Mazzei

CAGUAS, P.R. — The closing of 167 public schools in Puerto Rico a year ago seemed drastic, a painful casualty of a deep and prolonged debt crisis. Then came Hurricane Maria.

Now Puerto Rico plans to shutter another 265 schools, an even harsher measure following a calamitous natural disaster that exacerbated the island’s financial woes. As hurricane season officially began again on Friday, Puerto Rico was set to finish the school year with the doors permanently locked on more than a third of its schools.

Teachers have taken to the streets. Parents have organized to fight back.

“I am suffering,” María Díaz, 65, said as she picked up her two granddaughters from John F. Kennedy Middle School in Caguas, which is scheduled to close. “I felt this school was a refuge.”

“No one wants it to close,” one of her granddaughters, Avril Santos, 13, a seventh grader, said from the back seat of her grandmother’s S.U.V. “I have many friends, and there’s no bullying here.”

Driving the latest round of closings is a sharp drop in student enrollment that began during the economic recession and worsened after the hurricane, as thousands fled the island. Compounding the problem: Doing away with schools could prompt even more Puerto Ricans to leave.

“I’m thinking I might have to get on a plane,” said Ms. Díaz, who has a daughter in Pennsylvania. “But the girls are happy here. It’s sad.”

The unrest in Puerto Rico’s educational system — where only 10 percent of seventh, eighth and 11th graders achieved proficiency in a standardized math test last year — extends beyond the loss of schools. In March, the governor signed a law that for the first time will allow for the establishment of charter schools and vouchers. Charter schools are publicly funded, but independently run. Vouchers, which allow public money to be spent on private schools, are praised by some for giving more choice to parents. Opponents contend that they drain money from public schools.

Alfredo Alemán Iglesias and his son, Yavier, who is in the sixth grade at John F. Kennedy Middle School in Caguas, which is scheduled to close.CreditErika P. Rodriguez for The New York Times

Teacher unions have staged a series of demonstrations in several cities to voice their discontent with the changes.

“No to privatization,” read signs at a protest in San Juan in May. “No to school closures.”

Puerto Rico officials say the existing schools are failing. Only about 49 percent of students achieved proficiency in Spanish last year, and just 33 percent in math. Political leaders say that more educational options — and fewer, better staffed schools — will help raise academic standards and establish a consistent rate of spending per student.

“The number of schools doesn’t determine the quality of your education system,” Gov. Ricardo A. Rosselló said at a recent news conference.

Puerto Rico’s finances have been controlled by a federal oversight board since 2016, when the island essentially declared bankruptcy. Advocates for the teachers have asked Congress to assure that new charter schools are barred from receiving any of the $589 million in federal hurricane aid set aside to restore the public schools. More than 30 Democrats in Congress have asked the governor to declare a moratorium on school closings.

Julia Keleher, a former Washington-based education consultant appointed by Mr. Rosselló to take the reins of Puerto Rico’s school system in 2017, said the school choice bill, in the works since before the hurricane, would allow the sort of flexibility adopted by some mainland school districts more than a decade ago. It would also give teachers a $1,500 raise, their first in 10 years.

“It’s incredibly important that this transformation happens,” Ms. Keleher said in an interview.

The protests echoed demonstrations by teachers across the country who have pushed, with some degree of success, for higher salaries and more funding for public schools. That’s no coincidence, said Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, who attended a protest organized by the union’s Puerto Rico affiliate outside the island’s Capitol this spring.

“It all comes down to choices, and the island has made a choice — just like the state government in Oklahoma or the state government in Arizona — that children are not a high priority,” she said.

Ms. Weingarten accused Puerto Rico’s education secretary, Ms. Keleher, of pushing measures similar to the ones adopted in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, which created a system made up almost entirely of charter schools. In Washington, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is an ardent supporter of alternatives to traditional public schools.


Marisol Penzo, a fourth grader, in math class at Hiram Gonzalez Elementary School. Educators in schools that will remain open fear jam-packed classrooms will make instruction more difficult.CreditErika P. Rodriguez for The New York Times

Only 3 percent of Puerto Rico’s roughly 319,000 students would be eligible for vouchers under the new law, which would also cap the number of charter schools at 10 percent of the total number of schools. About 840 traditional public schools will remain after this summer’s closings, down from 1,110 this year. Right now, almost 500 of them have an occupancy of less than 60 percent, according to the Education Department, which says enrollment has dropped by 38,700 since May 2017.

Enrollment is expected to fall to about 312,000 in the upcoming school year and keep dropping, albeit at a slower pace, to about 292,000 in 2021, according to the department’s projections.

Teacher unions dispute those estimates, saying the decline has been less drastic, in part because some Puerto Ricans who fled to the mainland after the hurricane have since returned. But the loss of students began long before Maria.

“Every year, we lose 20,000 kids,” Ms. Keleher said, pulling up a chart on her cellphone showing the enrollment decline even before the storm. “This isn’t benefiting anybody.”

The Education Department initially announced 283 schools would close, and then lowered the number to 265.

Closing fewer schools at a time and stretching the process out over several years, as suggested by the federal oversight board, was a possibility, Ms. Keleher said. But that would only extend the pain, she said, and make it more difficult to plan for the long term. Consolidating schools will save about $150 million this year through reduced operating costs and attrition, according to the fiscal plan governing Puerto Rico’s finances. The savings will allow the Education Department to equalize spending per student and start saving for capital improvements, Ms. Keleher said. “The system has to be able to budget and project.”

Ms. Keleher has promised there will be no layoffs. But that applies only to teachers with tenure. Those working on year-to-year contracts whose positions are eliminated will be eligible to be recertified in other teaching areas. Last year, 7,000 teachers qualified for recertification, but only 3,500 took part, Ms. Keleher said, and many of the others left the system. Aida Díaz, the head of a local union, estimated that about 2,000 teachers were left without a job in 2017.

The base teacher salary is about $21,000 a year, according to Edwin Morales Laboy, the vice president of another teachers’ union, though the Education Department says the average teacher is paid about $27,000 a year. That compares with an average salary in the 50 mainland states of $58,950 in the 2016-7 school year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. While housing and other costs are cheaper in Puerto Rico, the cost of food and utilities consistently ranks among the highest in metropolitan areas across the United States, according to the island’s Institute of Statistics.


Students arrived at the Dr. Francisco Hernández y Gaetan Elementary School in San Juan in October, for the first day of school after Hurricane Maria ravaged the island.CreditErika P. Rodriguez for The New York Times

“Teachers are desperate and feel like they’re being railroaded,” Ms. Díaz said.

Educators in schools that will remain open fear jam-packed classrooms will make instruction more difficult.

“If we can’t effectively tend to 25 children, how are we going to function with 35 or 40 children? Because there are no caps,” said Lucelenia Rivera, a third-grade teacher at Eleanor Roosevelt Elementary School in San Juan.

Fewer than half of the schools that closed last year have been repurposed. At one former school, the police recently found a cache of firearms and drugs. Several others have been found still stocked with textbooks, television sets and folders full of students’ personal information. The files included health records and Social Security numbers, yet no one appeared to be watching over them.

Even critics of the government’s education plan acknowledge the need to shrink the number of schools to fit a smaller student population. But they denounce what they said has been a top-down approach: Teachers and parents learned about the closings from the news media, with no prior public hearings to offer input or learn about the criteria to shut down a school.

Alfredo Alemán Iglesias, a member of a parent group fighting the closings, said students in some of the schools set to close have achieved higher scores in standardized tests than students in the schools they are being reassigned to. “We don’t understand,” he said. “We want transparency.”

Mr. Alemán’s son, Yavier, 11, is in the sixth grade at Kennedy Middle School in Caguas, about 20 miles south of San Juan. The Education Department directed school principals not to speak to reporters and declined a request to visit schools on the shutdown list. So Mr. Alemán offered a tour of the outside of the middle school, known for its special education program for students with visual impairments.

“That program has meant everything to us,” said Magda Ocasio, 43, who selected Kennedy for her son Alejandro Romero, 14, who is legally blind, when he entered middle school three years ago.

Mr. Alemán pointed to Kennedy’s relatively new air-conditioning units and manicured athletic field — and to a neighboring public housing project. “This is going to turn into a crack den,” he predicted.

A rooster crowed. Mr. Alemán walked toward his mother’s house, across the street from the school.

“This is the street where I was raised,” he said, with a sad smile. “Now, these families? They’re going to get on a plane and leave.”

Follow Patricia Mazzei on Twitter: @PatriciaMazzei.

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