Debate Rages Over Puerto Rico Education Reform
Editor’s note: The following article originally appeared in the Feb. 22-28 print edition of Caribbean Business.
Education reform is crucial for Puerto Rico’s socioeconomic development, as long as it is conducted in an orderly and serious manner without political party interference—that is the conclusion reached by three experts who provided commentary on House Bill 1441, which would enable reform of the island’s public education system.
Such reforms would materialize through the bill, which was referred to the House Education, Arts & Culture Committee and the Special Commission on Special Education & Persons with Disabilities, to create the Education Reform Law of Puerto Rico, with which it is expected to establish new public policy on education.
In the legislation’s explanatory memorandum, reference is made to data revealed by the Puerto Rico Statistics Institute (SI), which indicate that as of July 2017, 54.9 percent of the people employed on the island have a university degree, while 5.2 percent completed post-secondary non-university studies, 29.6 percent have a high-school diploma, 1.5 percent have an intermediate-level education and 1.7 percent have a grade-school education.
“Faced with this panorama, it is inescapable that Puerto Rico’s future citizens are trained to be competent, sensitive and self-taught people; beings committed to the common good and to maintaining and defending the human principles and values that every just and democratic society should promote,” reads HB 1441, which includes as co-authors House Speaker Carlos “Johnny” Méndez Núñez and the controversial Rep. María “Tata” Charbonier Laureano.
The bill also cites Section 5 of Article II of the Constitution of Puerto Rico, where it states “everyone has the right to an education that is conducive to the full development of his [or her] personality and the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. …”
Caribbean Business interviewed two education experts and another on economic affairs, who concurred that the issue of education reform should have been addressed long ago, but the island’s current situation and economic development plans make this the ideal time for a reform of this kind.
However, all agreed the issue, which is central to Puerto Rico’s socioeconomic development, should be dealt with in a serious and responsible manner, because these are decisions that will affect future generations.
According to the Senate and House bills, the education reform aims to refocus administrative, academic and human resources efforts. For this, both legislative bills propose a deep reform in the ascribing of functions, recruiting, evaluation, accountability and transparency that aims to set in a clear manner the responsibilities of the school directors and the teaching staff so they can answer for their actions; the creation of an Educational Council as entities that will reach alliances with different private and community-based organizations; the consolidation and granting of all to the Education Department (DE) of all schools; a budget system that allows to focus resources to improve education, the guarantee of educational services to youth that are serving sentences in juvenile institutions; the integration of various sectors through the Community Integration Program and, the two most controversial points of these legislative pieces, which are the program of free selection of schools, also known as school vouchers, and the Alliance Schools, also known as charter schools.
“The reform we propose today aims to maximize the use of state and federal funds. For years, the use and management of the department’s funds has not been the most efficient, which has led to the amount that finally reaches the student’s education to be a minimal one,” said DE Secretary Julia Keleher, testifying in public hearings that the House of Representatives is holding regarding these issues.
However, this past Tuesday, the chair of the Senate Education & University Reform Committee, Abel Nazario Quiñones, expressed his concern for the extension of educational vouchers, because they could trigger a mass migration of students from the public to the private system.
Although the president of Universidad del Sagrado Corazón (USC), Gilberto Marxuach Torrós, admitted not yet having analyzed the bill, he emphasized the importance of education reform that goes hand in hand with an effective process of economic recovery. “I believe the issue of our education is probably the most important medium- to long-term economic development issue that Puerto Rico faces right now. At the end of the day, our economic development will depend on the ability of our people to innovate, undertake [and] manage activities, projects and initiatives that create wealth and allow all Puerto Ricans [to have] decent quality of life so all, each one of us, can aspire to a full life,” Marxuach Torrós said in a telephone interview.
“This objective depends fundamentally on the quality of our education systems and not only the system of kindergarten through 12th grade [K-12], because teaching in today’s world does not end…in the 12th grade or at the university; teaching has to be for life,” he added.
However, he acknowledged new students not only from the public education system, but also the private one, have basic skills issues, such as reading and writing, Spanish, English and mathematics.
The USC president indicated that students’ performance and preparation should be the subject of much collective attention.
“If we look at the latest results of the new College Board [exam] that recently was administered, we see the maximum result, when you add together the tests in Spanish, writing and reading, and mathematics, is 1,600; the average is about half, as in 800. When you look at particular subjects and, for example, you look at Spanish, writing and reading, only 4.4 percent scored above 600, in both public and private schools,” Marxuach Torrós explained.
“When you look at mathematics, the result is 4.8 percent, and when you look at English it’s 13.5 percent, which is a sign there’s still a lot of room for improvement in both our public and private [education] systems,” he added.
However, the university president also said these results should not be generalized since there are campuses, both in the public and private systems, which have shown extraordinary work with their individual results. However, he admitted this general reading shows a worrisome symptom that needs to be quickly addressed.