Puerto Rico Charter Sector to Take Off

This week, we share a cross-post from Sam Abrams, director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education, which initially appeared on the Center’s website. Abrams was in San Juan last week to give a lecture on charter schools and vouchers at a symposium on governance hosted by the University of Puerto Rico Law School. While there, he learned about hearings for charter school proposals. The hearings, in fact, took place the same day as the symposium.

Puerto Rico is currently home to one charter school but may soon be home to 30 more, according to hearings held by the island’s Department of Education on Friday, February 8.

The island’s Education Reform Act, approved in March 2018 in the wake of Hurricane María, which wrought havoc the previous September, introduced charter schools as well as vouchers, with the stipulation that no more than 10 percent of schools could be charter schools and no more than 3 percent of students could attend private or non-district public schools with the use of vouchers.

In the first year following the Education Reform Act, one charter school opened: Vimenti, an elementary school in San Juan operated by the Boys and Girls Club of Puerto Rico.

According to an article published by Noticel,Vimenti started in August 2018 with a kindergarten and first grade, enrolling 58 students in total–31 of whom come from the neighborhood, 27 of whom come from nearby, and 13 of whom are classified for special education. The plan is to add one grade per year as students progress through school.

Supplementary funding for Vimenti, reported Noticel, comes from the Colibri Foundation, which donated $1 million, and the singer Marc Anthony, who gave $500,000.

In the hearings last week, the Department of Education considered proposals for four more charter schools in San Juan, five in Humacao, one in Bayamón, three in Caguas, six in Ponce, two in Arecibo, and nine in Mayaguez.

In contrast to Vimenti, these schools would not be new schools built one grade at a time but, rather, conversions from traditional schools to charter schools.

According to a school administrator with direct knowledge of the hearing process, it is expected that at least 13 of the proposed conversions will be approved for the 2019-2020 year while the remaining 17 will be approved for the 2020-2021 year.

For charter schools, the baseline for determining the 10 percent was the number of schools as of August 15, 2018, which means that if additional public schools across the island are closed, the proportion of charter schools could in time  exceed 10 percent. The government of Puerto Rico closed nearly 25 percent of the island’s schools following Hurricane María. Before the storm, there were 1,110 schools. A year later, according to a report by Education Week, there were 847.

Whether 14 schools or 31 in 2019-2020, the number of charter schools in Puerto Rico would mark striking growth.  By comparison, Minnesota, the state that introduced charter schools with legislation in 1991, opened one charter school in 1992 and six more in 1993. By 2017, there were 164 charter schools across the state, enrolling 6.5 percent of the state’s public school students.

Growth in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, however, sets the standard for the rapid increase in charter schools. Following the devastating storm in August 2005, charter schools replaced traditional public schools at a fast clip. Of the city’s 87 schools today, all but one, McDonogh 35 Senior High, is a charter school. According to an article published in December 2018 by The Times-Picayune, McDonogh 35 will also soon be a charter school. The school is slated to assume charter status for the 2019-2020 year, making New Orleans the nation’s first all-charter district.

While the response of New Orleans to Hurricane Katrina established a precedent for the response of Puerto Rico to Hurricane María, the impact on schools of Katrina and María differed substantially. María left Puerto Rico hobbled, but it did not leave an entire school system in ruins, as was the case in New Orleans, allowing the state to take over and dismiss all teachers to clear the way for the imposition of a largely charter system.

With the summary dismissal of all teachers in New Orleans, the teachers’ union had little if any countervailing power. Teachers in Puerto Rico retained their jobs after María, and the presence of their union remained strong, constituting a significant obstacle to plans for a transformation of the island’s school system akin to the overhaul in New Orleans.

Although charter schools and vouchers are new to Puerto Rico, the concept of alternative forms of public school management is not new. The island’s Instituto Nueva Escuela (INE), in fact, sets the international standard for running neighborhood public Montessori schools.

INE, celebrated in a recent story published by El Nuevo Dia, comprises 44 schools across the island enrolling 14,600 students. Like conventional neighborhood public schools, schools in the INE network require no application. Unlike conventional neighborhood public schools, the schools in this network all employ the Montessori child-centered curriculum and get significant supplementary funding from foundations.

According to Ana María García, the founder and director of INE, the network spends 10 percent more per pupil–or $6,600 compared to $6,000.

García was pressured by the Department of Education, she said in an interview in San Juan last week, to transform INE into a charter network, but she refused, contending that fundamental to INE was the idea that the network’s schools be open to all students in the neighborhood, without any application process. García prevailed.

In recognition of García’s work, as El Nuevo Dia reported in a separate story, the American Montessori Society will be presenting García with its highest honor, its Living Legacy Award, at its annual meeting in March.

– Samuel E. Abrams, Director, NCSPE, February 13, 2019

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