Big federal grant to Puerto Rico would also boost charters

Big federal grant to Puerto Rico would also boost charters

(Puerto Rico) It was welcomed news when the U.S. Department of Education announced late last month that they were ready to release nearly $600 million in federal support to help Puerto Rico’s schools devastated by Hurricane Maria.

One caveat to the grant, however, may not have been so welcomed, at least in some corners: the money can be used for charter schools.

Until earlier this year, Puerto Rico law did not allow charters. But legislation signed by Gov. Ricardo Rosselló in February, will allow up to 10 percent of the schools in the territory to run pilot charter programs.

The legislation also authorizes the use of public tax money to support vouchers for private schools.

Both ideas are unpopular among the island’s teachers and both are being challenged in court.

“People are tired and vulnerable,” said Mercedes Martinez, president of the Puerto Rico Teachers' Federation, in an interview with Labor Notes, a left-leaning web-based magazine. “And the ruling class is taking advantage of this disaster to advance a corporate reform agenda.

“We are preparing for a fight, informing people about the need to go on strike until the government gets rid of that bill,” she said.

Already dealing with the biggest governmental bankruptcy in U.S. history, the island was hit with its worst natural disaster in almost a century last September.

Struggling to re-establish basic services, let alone normal economic activity, Puerto Rico has since experienced a mass exodus of about 200,000 residents from a pre-disaster population of close to 3.3 million.

Education officials estimate that as many as 40,000 K-12 student have left the island as well, from a total enrollment of about 350,000 prior to the hurricane.

In response, the government closed 200 public schools in 2017, and Rosselló announced plans in January to close another 300 schools in an effort to trim $300 million out of the budget.

Although critics are quick to point out that U.S. Education Secretary Betsy Devos is a big fan of school choice, Puerto Rico’s Education Secretary Julia Keleher said the charter school program will not be a wholesale conversation.

As proposed, there would be 14 charters to begin with, two in each of the island’s seven educational regions. Each would be given more authority to make local decisions and a per pupil funding formula that provides more resources to high-needs students.

There is also language in the law to allow non-profit organizations, universities or a municipality to open, with the government's approval, its own school or try to take over an existing one.

The teachers union said the new freedom will be used by districts to simply pay teachers less while eliminating benefits. Meanwhile, lower achieving students would be sent back to the traditional schools.

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