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House passes Puerto Rico governor’s education reform with amendments

By on March 13, 2018

SAN JUAN — While some shouted “Don’t lie” at lawmakers from the Puerto Rico House of Representative’s gallery, and police officers tried to stop the demonstrators, lower chamber legislators passed a greatly amended education reform bill amid opposition from minority delegations.

Among the amendments included in the Education, Art & Culture Committee report is a provision that charter schools will be “public, free, non-sectarian, and free of any type of discrimination”; and “at least two” schools will be established per educational region.

The Puerto Rico House of Representatives (Génesis Ibarra/CB)

“It is established that the number of Alliance Schools will not be greater than 10 percent, based on the total number of public schools functioning as of Aug. 15, 2018,” one of the amendments reads. The commonwealth’s fiscal plan proposes reducing the total number of schools to 805, thus 10 percent represents roughly 80 schools.

Rep. Denis Márquez, the spokesman of the Puerto Rican Independence Party, denounced that the 176-page bill intends to “condemn us to failure again” and added that the “ill-named education reform” does not include real will to address what he believes is the greatest problem in the education system: political control in the department.

“During the process of discussing this bill [and] of an alleged education reform, public education has been criminalized, and the teachers of this country have been criminalized,” he said, arguing that teachers have been blamed for the “educational disaster.”

One of the amendments the representative questioned was the privatization of several areas of the education system. He argued that the reform would, for example, allow the Education Department to privatize school cafeteria services, specifically through public-private partnerships or cafeteria employee cooperatives.

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The bill, which was voted on after a four-hour debate and mere hours after the amendments were made public, also establishes that 70 percent of the budget must for student services. The Education Department’s secretary must also submit an annual report to the legislature.

“There’s talk about 70 percent of the budget dedicated to students; the global, the state, special assignments, federal allocations. But the fact that the so-called Alliance Schools will have the same budget as other public schools is not referenced,” Márquez said.

Similarly, Popular Democratic Party (PDP) Minority Leader Rafael Hernández declared sententiously that the bill’s true purpose “is to privatize via the kitchen of Puerto Rico’s education system.” To this, he added that the cap of 10 percent to establish charter schools does not limit the number of students who could enroll.

Regarding the 80 charter schools the reform proposes to create, Rodríguez argued that, that 10 percent could mean close to 18 percent of the students, which would represent a loss for the island’s public schools.

Numerous amendments

The bill also establishes that schools “will implement special education programs for their students,” but then provides that parents must authorize their children to take the course and will be consulted about the lesson materials.

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Meanwhile, a new article proposes to establish a system of incentives to retain teachers who are difficult to hire. These could range from study leaves to bonuses and “other distinctions that emphasize educational work.”

The proposal also provides for the protocol to be followed by the Education Department when closing, consolidating or reorganizing schools. Education Secretary Julia Keleher must now prepare a “study” that includes performance indicators “that allow for the valuation of each criterion.”

Among the details that should be included are the current and projected enrollment for the next five years of the specific schools, the state of infrastructure, the number of employees per category, operational costs, and the effect of their closure on the community.

“In the event the secretary determines that the closure, consolidation and/or reorganization of schools is urgent and necessary for the preservation of students’ health or security in general, the secretary may proceed with the temporary closure of a public school, or consolidate or reorganize it,” the bill further establishes.

The proposal also addresses the concerns of the Independent Union of Employees of the Public Buildings Authority (UIEAEP), with an amendment providing that “the maintenance of facilities [sic] of public schools will be in charge of the [Public Buildings Authority] in those cases where it currently provides the service.”

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Regarding the educational vouchers, declared unconstitutional in 1993 under a different composition of the Supreme Court, it was established that up to 3 percent of the students of the public system will be eligible for this program during the fiscal year 2020, and up to 5 percent in subsequent years.

Demands from the gallery

The debate on education reform was marked by confrontations, protest and shouting by teachers in the House gallery, while employees of the Capitol occupying some of the available spaces witnessed the dissent silently.

The tensest moment occurred when Anés Cedeño, a teacher from Caguas, complained to the lawmakers that her school does not have either an English teacher or a school board. Immediately, police officers unsuccessfully tried to remove the young woman and union leader Eva Ayala to no avail.

“Arrest me! They have taken so much from us that they also took our fear. What am I going to lose now if they remove me [from the chamber]? What am I going to lose if everything has been taken from me?” the teacher yelled, adding that lawmakers should listen to teachers who know what real situation at schools is.

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