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Puerto Rican Government Considering Changes For Public Schools After Hurricane Maria


The government and the teachers' unions in Puerto Rico are clashing. The education secretary wants to overhaul the public school system, and part of the plan is charter schools. Allowing charter schools on the island would be a big change. Opponents of the plan say officials are taking advantage of the chaos caused by Hurricane Maria to turn public schools over to private organizations. NPR's Adrian Florido reports.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: The Escuela Rafael Hernandez teaches elementary and middle school students from the barrio of Guaraguao, a mountain community in the municipality of Guaynabo, a half hour outside the capital. It's a small school that's gotten smaller since Hurricane Maria. Parent leader Mariliana Sanchez says when it finally reopened two months after the storm, only about 60 of 150 students came back.

MARILIANA SANCHEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "Lots of families left for the U.S.," Sanchez says. The school's enrollment has been creeping back up as some families have returned. Still, Sanchez says, parents fear Rafael Hernandez will be one of the 300 schools the government has said it'll close this year.

SANCHEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "The school is so necessary," Sanchez says. "We don't have enough schools in the mountains, in the countryside." Sanchez's fears are shared in rural and mountain communities across Puerto Rico. The decade-long recession has driven half a million people off the island, draining students from its schools. Hurricane Maria accelerated that exodus.

JULIA KELEHER: (Speaking Spanish).


FLORIDO: This exodus is one reason Julia Keleher, Puerto Rico's education secretary, has been visiting schools across the island. She's promoting a sweeping education reform bill that the governor announced last month. At a high school in Arecibo, an hour west of the capital, Keleher tells students the proposal will improve their education by modernizing standards and curricula, assigning funding per student. And the biggest change - it would introduce charter schools, giving private entities public money to operate public schools.

KELEHER: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "But everyone," she goes on, "is going to take to the streets and say, you're privatizing our schools. But I'm not."


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #1: (Chanting in Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #2: (Chanting in Spanish).

FLORIDO: The proposal is facing protests, especially from teachers' unions who claim the governor is using the hurricane as an excuse to privatize schools in the same way he recently announced plans to sell off the island's electric grid.


MERCEDES MARTINEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "This is not education reform. This is corporate overhaul," said Mercedes Martinez, president of one of the teachers' unions. At a protest outside the education department, she said charter schools would divert money from other schools that sorely need it. And she warned they'd also pay teachers less and kick out underperforming students. But the education secretary says the goal is to foster innovation and give students better options in a system that's inefficient and has lacked accountability for a long time.

KELEHER: I don't think kids here, this future generation of Puerto Rico, has any more time to wait. I have an obligation to do something to improve and transform this system.

FLORIDO: In November, Keleher hosted a visit from the U.S. Education secretary, Betsy DeVos, who's been an outspoken supporter of charter schools. Last year, federal funds provided nearly 40 percent of Puerto Rico's education budget. Loida Martinez, associate dean of the University of Puerto Rico's school of education, says there's something else going on. The island's fiscal crisis and now Hurricane Maria have made it hard for the government to sustain its own institutions.

LOIDA MARTINEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: According to Martinez, the island's government is in effect saying, let someone else improve our schools. In the barrio of Guaraguao, Mariliana Sanchez says since her son's school reopened in November, two teachers have been transferred because there's still no power, it's only open for half the day, and rumors the schools will close have driven some families to enroll their kids at a school in the city.

SANCHEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: But Sanchez has all those challenges won't hold her back. Never mind the declining enrollment or the fiscal crisis. She promised the other parents she'd fight to keep their school open. Adrian Florido, NPR News, Guaynabo, Puerto Rico. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Adrian Florido
Adrian Florido is a national correspondent for NPR covering race and identity in America.
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