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Puerto Rico Legislature sends education reform to governor’s desk for enactment

By on March 20, 2018

SAN JUAN — In less than a minute, the Puerto Rico House of Representatives concurred Tuesday with the numerous amendments the Senate made to the education reform bill Monday, thus the proposal of more than 200 pages only requires the signature of Gov. Ricardo Rosselló for enactment.

With empty galleries and after more than two hours of debate, Puerto Rico’s Senate passed education reform Monday with 19 votes in favor and many amendments, which in some cases clashed with the version passed in the House last week.

On Tuesday, the governor met with House Speaker Carlos “Johnny” Méndez; the chairman of the Education Commission, Rep. Guillermo Miranda and Rep. María Milagros Charbonier to ensure passage of his proposal.

One of the amendments concerns the much-debated charter schools. In the Senate’s version, charter schools will be known as Public Alliance Schools, addressing concern among some sectors that denounced the reform sought to privatize the public learning system.

Likewise, the upper chamber amended the 208-page bill to establish that charter schools “will not charge costs or enrollment.” The original language read that the charter schools, which would not make up more than 10 percent of the school system, “should not” charge their students.

House Speaker Carlos “Johnny” Méndez (Juan J. Rodríguez/CB)

Before the beginning of the debate, Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz introduced eight amendments to protect teachers’ rights, one of which provides that the Education secretary “in no case can affect teachers’ rights.”

“The rights acquired by teachers, prior to the approval of this law, shall be guaranteed by the department secretary and the Government of Puerto Rico. Specifically, those that address their tenure and retirement,” one of the changes reads.

A new article adds that “every newly hired teacher in the public education system will have federal Social Security as part of their compensation and benefits.”

“For the teachers in the system when this law takes effect, the secretary will have one year to carry out the mandatory referendum, which must be based on the benefit of the teacher and year of service, to include them in the Social Security System. Were this referendum to obtain a majority in favor, we will proceed to separate, allocate and obligate the funds for its financing in an additional period of one year,” the article reads.

The Senate president also eliminated the disposition that allowed the Education Department to establish collaborative agreements with towns, or Public-Private Partnerships, for school grounds maintenance.

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The Education secretary—in this case, Julia Keleher—will also establish the Drug- and Gun-Free School Program, a bill authored by Rivera Schatz that was enacted in November. The secretary will also “have the obligation of implementing sign-language courses at the elementary, middle and high school levels in the curriculum.”

“No educational reform can obviate or treat teachers’ rights lightly,” Rivera Schatz said, “It must remain clear that no teacher here will lose their rights. None. That is fundamental to this legislative assembly.”

Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz assured that teachers would not lose their rights. (Juan J. Rodríguez/CB)

It was also decreed that educational vouchers—declared unconstitutional more than 20 years ago—may only be offered to 3 percent of the total number of students. The original bill provided that this percentage would increase to 5 percent in the fiscal year 2020.

Popular Democratic Party (PDP) minority Sen. Aníbal José Torres said he would have preferred the matter to be considered in a separate bill. He also sees it as a “contradiction,” because he does not understand how the power to run schools can be given to nonprofit institutions while vouchers are given for students to switch to private schools.

Other amendments to the administration-drafted bill include the elimination of a provision that allowed Education to seek public-private partnerships to provide cafeteria and transportation services, as well as the elimination of the article that included sex education courses.

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Despite voting in favor of the bill, Sen. Zoé Laboy criticized the elimination of sex education, arguing that these courses could help the youth prevent teenage pregnancies.

The chairman of the Commission on Education and University Reform of the Senate, Abel Nazario Quiñones, indicated that the total number of content amendments amounts to 16. The rest of the amendments to the document were made to its drafting style.

Education secretary’s powers criticized

The Senate amended the definition of “Authorizer” to delimit that only the secretary of Education will have the authority to certify and approve the Certified Educational Entities that will operate the charter schools, thus eliminating the House amendment that allowed an advisory committee of the secretary to grant Constitutive Letters.

In response to that and Keleher’s power to grant the educational vouchers, Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP) Sen. Juan Dalmau criticized that the secretary was given too much power after she granted a contract of more than $16 million to teach values in schools.

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“The person who will be in charge of the execution and authority provided by this bill is the Education secretary, whose execution we have recently seen,” Dalmau said, adding he would vote against the bill.

He further said the island’s public education system lost its academic value by becoming a “bureaucratic monster” that, for decades, has seen a decline in enrollment and cases of embezzlement and corruption.

The Senate required 16 votes to pass the measure. Nineteen votes were in favor—three of which were from the PDP delegation’s Eduardo Bhatia, José Nadal Power and Torres—eight votes against and one abstention.

The Senate amendments to educational reform’s H.B. 1441 will be considered by the House. If the lower chamber does not concur with the amendments, the bill will go to a conference committee where legislators from both bodies will decide its final content.

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