Wednesday, May 22, 2019

[Editorial] Pollito-Chicken; Gallina-Hen

By on April 4, 2019

‘Puerto Rico will pay dearly by perpetuating a competitive disadvantage of a talented people’

Editor’s note: The following originally appeared in the April 4-10, 2019, issue of Caribbean Business.

Pollito-chicken, gallina-hen, lápiz-pencil, y pluma-pen”—with that ditty many of us who grew up in Puerto Rico in the 1960s commenced school days in an initiative driven by the Education Department to foster bilingualism among the island’s students. Those were the days.

In an era marked by steady economic development—as high as 6 percent growth at one clip in 1968—it was understood that industrial tax incentives did no good for Puerto Rico without the skilled professionals to fill posts at multinational companies setting up on the island at breakneck speed. Thus, the island’s students were educated to become the technocrats of tomorrow, armed with a bilingual education to compete on the world stage with professionals across the globe.

In the time since those golden years of Puerto Rico’s industrialization, we have attempted to reform education that could benefit our youth. Former Gov. Pedro Rosselló, who has a column in this edition championing education as a human right, pushed mightily in his two terms to establish charter schools. That was a campaign promise steeped in hardship that faced hostile resistance from teachers’ unions who pointed at tenets of segregation underpinning the initiative. His successor, the first woman to govern Puerto Rico, Sila María Calderón, fared no better in her crusade to overhaul education on the island because, say some of her critics, she hogtied then-Secretary César Rey. He, too, had to deal with the political straitjacket of unions putting their interests above those of the students they teach. How sad.

Former Gov. Luis Fortuño had sights set on implementing the comprehensive Bilingual Generation program, which had set a 10-year goal to ensure that every single one of Puerto Rico’s high-school graduates become perfectly bilingual.

Sadly, even as the pilot program was just getting started, the naysayers were out in full force citing reasons for which English cannot be taught in schools across the island. Theirs is retrograde insular thinking. Instead, the detractors should be focusing on several ways to help make students fully bilingual. After all, there is a mountain of evidence pointing to the importance of being fluent in English and Spanish as a prerequisite to compete in the global economy.

To help set the record straight, Caribbean Business went through hundreds of documents and interviewed more than one dozen education experts and executive talent scouts back in 2012. In a nutshell, these are the facts: English is one of the official languages of 56 countries, 27 entities, the United Nations, the European Union, many commonwealth countries, as well as world organizations.

Unfortunately, in Puerto Rico, 81 percent of the population ages 5 and older speaks English less than “very well,” according to recent statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. The pressing need to implement bilingual education is currently hindered by a lack of proficiency by some of Puerto Rico’s teachers.

In 2012, only 62 percent of Puerto Rico’s teachers felt they were fully qualified to teach subjects in English and 38 percent expressed a desire to become more proficient in English. Sadly, as is the case when administrations change in Puerto Rico, that initiative was thrown in the trash bin. ¿Y los niños?—Bien, gracias.

Politicians know full well that administrations going back more than a generation have failed to transform education; our youths are the ultimate victims. It is a sad fact made more tragic by the abrupt resignation of Secretary of Education Julia Keleher. We spent the better part of the past two years discussing her “ginormous” salary, her single-mindedness—some call it “the bull in china shop syndrome”—with the hope that something would come of all this.

From the outset, Keleher made waves with her push to overhaul what had become a bloated and inefficient school system—too many teachers getting paid too little to teach a dwindling student body. Not more than one week ago, she conducted an interview with this newspaper during which she expressed a crying need to secure more money to bring pay scales of Puerto Rico’s teachers closer to the those in jurisdictions across the United States. As it stands right now, the average annual salary for teachers in Puerto Rico is $31,425. By comparison, teachers in New York earn an average of $79,000 a year.

Unfortunately, the myth of abundance driving Education policy in Puerto Rico—a budget towering at about 20 percent of the General Fund—is now under the knife of the Financial Oversight & Management Board. The $1.2 billion that Keleher was requesting to improve teacher compensation is not available.

So, she abruptly resigned. The optics are not good because the act runs headlong against her discourse from day one—that it would take her a decade to exact true transformational change. And, to top it off , la ex secretaria informed she will remain under contract in her advisory role at the Financial Advisory & Fiscal Agency Authority through June 30, in what remains of her $250,000 annual salary.

Actions like those give credence to her detractors, among them American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, who put out a statement alleging that “during her tenure, Puerto Rico Education Secretary Julia Keleher treated educators and parents as a speed bump, implementing policies that created chaos and instability for the island’s 320,000 school children.”

Her supporters will say that it was tough sledding from day one; her detractors will point to her abrupt departure as an act of cowardice. Everyone will know deep down inside that we run the risk of yet another generation of youths being lost. And Puerto Rico will pay dearly by perpetuating a competitive disadvantage of a talented people essential to the equation for a return to the world stage.

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