Puerto Rico Gov Launches Cuentas Mi Futuro to Address Social Inequality

Editor’s note: The following originally appeared in the Feb. 28 – March 6, 2019, issue of Caribbean Business.

As part of the latest revision of the Puerto Rico Incentives Code, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló Nevares announced last week the creation of “educational development accounts,” as were originally proposed in his government administrative platform, Plan for Puerto Rico.

The governor made the announcement accompanied by the executive director of the Fiscal Agency & Financial Advisory Authority (Aafaf by its Spanish acronym), Christian Sobrino Vega, along with his counterpart at the Economic Development & Commerce Department (DDEC), Manuel Laboy Rivera, and Education Secretary Julia Keleher.

Rosselló explained that the program, renamed, “Cuentas Mi Futuro,” or “My Future Accounts,” consists of the creation of savings accounts for students who start in kindergarten, and in which the state will invest $1,000 as an initial contribution. After students complete their senior year of high school, they can access these funds either to continue higher education, start a business or simply as an incentive, intended to combat the island’s school-dropout rate.

“It is an initiative that we will put into the Incentives Code we will be introducing because it has a social benefit that goes far beyond money,” the governor argued.

“In other jurisdictions around the world, this system has proven to be very effective because it is an investment in the development of our citizenry and our human resources. The idea is to contextualize that these accounts will be opened when the student is in kindergarten. When there, the state will deposit $1,000 into that account, which over time, with the interest it will be receiving, will grow,” he explained while underlining the initiative’s success, in what he called the “Enabling State,” in other jurisdictions such as Canada and the United Kingdom.

Rosselló indicated that because of the way the initiative would operate the student accounts may receive additional contributions from other sources and will not be limited to obtaining dividends from the initial amount, at a conservative interest rate of 4 percent.

“These accounts have multiple purposes, and not only that the money stays there and nothing is added, but that there may be other contributions…from the family, from the municipalities, which sometimes make this type of contribution, and other resources such as competitions or social initiatives that cannot be compensated in cash, that the compensation can be a contribution to this account,” he said.

Rosselló insisted the initiative is an important mechanism to address the problem of social inequality that exists in Puerto Rico, which is among the 15 jurisdictions in the world with the greatest economic inequality among its population.

The government’s contribution to the accounts, which would begin to be made in August, when the 2019-2020 school year starts, would come from the island’s general fund and be deposited in a trust fund. The governor also indicated that the contribution would be made in August for all new kindergarten students and repeated annually.

Rosselló said students who do not graduate would lose the account’s privileges and said the funds would be kept in the trust to match the annual contribution required by the initiative.

For his part, Sobrino, who is also the Rosselló administration’s ex officio representative to the fiscal oversight board, ruled out that the federally established panel would have objections to the bill because programs of this type already have an allocation of funds within the board-certified fiscal plan.

“In the fiscal plan and recent budget letter sent by the board, several programs and funds are mentioned for these [programs], which are either to support educational measures or public safety,” Sobrino said. “Public safety is clearly a separate issue, but those programs, although they are included in the fiscal plan, have not really been delineated yet and have not been given form…so we are putting the ball into play. In terms of budget, the important thing here is that this initiative is executed, and seeing the positive effect it is going to have, no one should doubt that it is something that should be supported. I do not see, nor do I expect there will be, many obstacles.”

The Aafaf director also explained that an independent trustee will be selected through a competitive process in accordance with the way in which the government has established these trusts in the past two years.

Likewise, Laboy stressed that developing the island’s labor force is a vital part of the Rosselló administration’s fiscal plan.

“The development of the workforce is part of the fiscal plan. It is included as one of those important components, and when you look at other jurisdictions, the main concern is precisely the development of the workforce, so in that sense Puerto Rico is no different than the rest of the world, where they have to make specific bets to ensure they have the workforce, not only the present one but also of the future, and this measure directly addresses this concern and ensures we have that labor force for the island’s future,” DDEC’s Laboy said.

The governor made the announcement less than a month after also saying he is running for a second term as governor for the 2020 elections while summoning his supporters to a March 3 campaign event.

SBA begins recruitment for Emerging Leaders Training Series in Puerto Rico

SAN JUAN – The U.S. Small Business Administration announced Thursday the launch of the 2019 Emerging Leaders program in Puerto Rico for executives of small businesses.

The SBA’s Emerging Leaders program is free of charge. To qualify, a business owner or company executive must have annual sales of at least $250,000; have been in business for at least three years; and have at least two employees.

Local recruitment for the 2019 training cycle is underway in San Juan and Ponce. Classes are scheduled to start in March, ending in September.

“Given the success of SBA’s Emerging Leaders in Puerto Rico, we have expanded the program to include Ponce as a second location on the island, allowing for more executives to take advantage of this outstanding training series and lead their companies to the next level,” SBA District Director Yvette T. Collazo said.

The SBA explained that Emerging Leaders provides free entrepreneurship education and training for executives of “small, poised-for-growth companies that are potential job creators.”

It includes nearly 100 hours of education and provides opportunities for small-business owners to work with coaches and mentors, attend workshops, and develop connections with their peers, local leaders and the financial community.

The program has graduated more than 90 companies in Puerto Rico and in the U.S. Virgin Islands since 2015.

“Nationwide, since 2008 Emerging Leaders has trained over 5,000 small business owners, creating over 6,500 jobs, generating over $300 million in new financing, and securing over $3.16 billion in government contracts,” according to the release.

Business executives who want to join the 2019 Emerging Leaders cycle can register their interest online at www.sba.gov/emergingleaders or by contacting Angelique Adjutant at angelique.adjutant@sba.gov.

Judge requests information from Puerto Rico Education secretary

Education Secretary Julia Keleher (CB file)

SAN JUAN – Federal officials arrived in Puerto Rico’s Education Department headquarters Wednesday afternoon with an information request, under penalty of contempt, for Secretary Julia Keleher.

Judge Jay García Gregory issued the warrant for Keleher, who reportedly is abroad. The investigation is related to Rocket Learning, a tutoring company that is under investigation for alleged illegal billings. This investigation involves the 2011 to 2013 period for services that were not offered but charged $1 million, according to reports.

The warrant “was left without effect after the Education Department notified that it is working to produce the required information as part of a case before the Federal Court, of which the department is not part,” it said in a statement that stressed that the matter is related to developments before Keleher’s tenure.

Lymarie Llovet, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s office, said the documents in the case are sealed and had no further details, the Associated Press reported.

Nearly $2.9 million in federal funds allocated for education, work, agriculture and environment in Puerto Rico

Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González (Courtesy)

SAN JUAN – Puerto Rico Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González Colón announced Tuesday federal allocations for the island totaling nearly $2.9 million from the U.S. Agriculture Department (USDA), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the U.S. Education Department and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The USDA Office of Rural Development allocated nearly $1.4 million for the island under various agency programs. Of this allocation, the majority is for “working capital to produce coffee, packed fresh lettuce, processed meats, gelatos, flavored UTH packaged milk and for extracting medicinal herbs,” according to the congresswoman’s release.

Some $20,000 will be allocated as part of the business development program to provide technical assistance to students and veterans at the former Roosevelt Roads Naval Stattion in Ceiba, as well as Guayama. As part of the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP), $407,420 will be allocated for the purchase and installation of solar systems to help farmers and small businesses develop renewable energy systems.

Meanwhile, the EPA approved $409,668 toward Clean Air Act efforts and to help the Environmental Quality Board to operate and maintain its air quality network. The work will involve air quality sampling and generation of representative air quality data.

“To make it easier for parents to continue with higher education, the Department of Education allocated $163,227.00 to the Inter-American University of Puerto Rico and $470,184.00 to the Metropolitan University under the Child Care Access Program Means Parents in School Program,” which supports the participation of low-income parents in postsecondary education programs by providing on-campus child care, the release explained.

OSHA allocated $149,904 to the University of Puerto Rico’s Medical Sciences Campus for health and safety training and an educational material development program that aims to prevent work-related injuries, illnesses and deaths.

Puerto Rico awarded $17 million in federal community-development, scientific-research funding

SAN JUAN – Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González announced $17.1 million in funds–from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the U.S. Department of Education and the National Science Foundation–for scientific research, aid for students displaced by last year’s hurricanes and community development funds.

Municipalities will receive $12 million in Community Development Block Grant (CDBG), HOME Investment Partnerships, and Emergency Solutions Grants (ESG) program funds.

Arecibo will receive $1 million in CDBG and $551,786 in HOME funds; Bayamón will receive $2.3 million from CDBG, $192,547 from ESG and $1.1 million from HOME; Carolina will receive $1.9 million from CDBG, $160,080 from ESG and $794,064 for HOME.

Meanwhile, Cayey will receive $659,697 and Cidra will receive $576,143 in CDBG funds. Guaynabo was granted $919,723 in CDBG and $352,038 in HOME funds; Humacao gets $824,286 from CDBG; and Toa Baja $1.2 million in CDBG and $444,957 in HOME funds.

Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González (Screen capture of www.gonzalez-colon.house.gov)

A release issued by the resident commissioner’s office explains that the CDBG program provides annual grants for the “development of viable urban communities, providing decent housing and an adequate living environment, while expanding economic opportunities, primarily, for people of low and moderate income.”

The ESG program helps with the repair and rehabilitation of homes that are going to be used as shelters or transitional houses.

The HOME program helps “expand the supply of decent and affordable housing to low and very low-income families by providing subsidies to states and local governments to finance housing programs that meet local needs and priorities.”

“Under the Defraying Costs of Enrolling Displaced Students program of the federal Department of Education, Universidad del Este (UNE) will receive $112,021.00 under the budget period of (07/23/2018 until 07/22/2023).

“These funds are awarded to eligible Higher Education Institutions to help defray unexpected expenses associated with the enrollment of students displaced from higher education institutions whose operations have been affected by a disaster or emergency, including hurricanes or tropical storms such as Harvey, Irma, and María and the wildfires in 2017 for which the President of the United States issued disaster statements,” the release reads.

The NSF approved six proposals for research and materials totaling $4.1 million.

“The Inter-American University of Puerto Rico will receive $ 90,502.00 from the Chemical Instrumentation and Research programs (MRI and CRIF). These funds are for the acquisition of a Zeta Potential and a Particle Size Analyzer for interdisciplinary research in the Ponce and San Germán campuses.

“The University of Puerto Rico will receive $1,033,750.00 for a collaboration with the University of Wisconsin for research and education in materials, with emphasis on those of scientific research and engineering. This project seeks to expand the participation of Latin Americans in science, in the fields of technology, engineering and mathematics. This collaboration includes the precincts of Mayagüez, Medical Sciences and Río Piedras.

“Another $1,288,750.00 will be given to the University of Puerto Rico Río Piedras Campus for other collaborative work with the Metropolitan University, the Universidad del Turabo, part of the Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI) program, and the Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source ( CHESS). This educational effort of collaborative research of materials seeks to gather and develop a diverse and talented interdisciplinary scientific community with experience operating synchrotron X-ray techniques, to improve energy storage and conversion devices.

“The Mayagüez Campus of the University of Puerto Rico will receive $150,237.00 for the work with RAPID: Fabrication of Bioinspired Plasmonic Nanoarrays for Biosensing and Trace Chemical Detection. This project seeks to improve the current understanding of how nanomaterials interact with bioactive agents in the liquid / solid interface.

“For the project ‘Developing capacity: a collaborative STEM program in resilient and sustainable infrastructure,’ two assignments of $1,111,530.00 and another of $373,685.00 were granted. The Mayagüez, Río Piedras and Ponce campuses of the University of Puerto Rico collaborate in this project to develop an interdisciplinary program of resistant infrastructure and sustainability to educate undergraduate STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) students in engineering and necessary related skills to respond to natural disasters,” the release added.

U.S. Education Department awards Puerto Rico $589 million in disaster assistance

SAN JUAN – U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announced Friday a total of approximately $693 million in new federal assistance under the Immediate Aid to Restart School Operations (K-12 Restart) program.

The awards are the first in a “multi-phased process designed to provide prompt initial funding while offering subsequent opportunities for eligible States to seek additional assistance through future applications,” according to a release.

Under the K-12 Restart program, the department is authorized to award funds to state educational agencies (SEAs) with students and schools impacted by hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria and the 2017 California wildfires. These SEAs, in turn, provide assistance or services to local educational agencies (LEAs), including charter schools and private schools, “to help defray expenses related to restarting school operations and restoring the normal learning environment for students and families affected by the hurricanes and wildfires.”

US Education secretary announces $22.9 million in funds for academic institutions impacted by hurricanes

The department has made initial awards to the first three SEAs that applied for assistance in the following amounts:

  • California Department of Education (CDE):  $14,396,317
  • Puerto Rico Department of Education (PRDE):  $589,170,000
  • Texas Education Agency (TEA):   $89,420,000

Award amounts were developed based on information provided by the SEAs in their applications, including the number of schools affected as a result of a covered disaster or emergency and how long they were closed.

“This economic injection by the federal government will be key in the recovery process for the Department of Education. It will benefit that both teachers, students and non-teaching staff can fully restore normality to teaching in the education system,” Gov. Ricardo Rosselló said after speaking over the phone with De Vos, according to a release issued by his office.

“Multiple officials have devoted endless hours of their time to the Department of Education in a genuine attempt to understand the needs and realities of the Puerto Rican education system. The creation of new grant programs is a difficult task and the federal Department of Education should be applauded for the speed with which it has been able to make this much-needed funding available.

“The leadership and commitment of Secretary DeVos to support school systems impacted by disasters has made all the difference. I am sure that, as a result of Restart funds, the Puerto Rico Department of Education will be able to return our students to a normal learning environment,” Puerto Rico Education Secretary Julia Keleher added.

Congress appropriated a combined amount of approximately $2.5 billion for both the Restart and Emergency Impact Aid for Displaced Students (K-12 Displaced Students) programs. “The amounts awarded under each program will be based on demand and specific data received from eligible applicants,” the department explains.

“This additional funding will ensure students, teachers and staff have ongoing access to the services they need to fully recover and rebuild,” DeVos says in her office’s release.

Betsy Devos (Gage Skidmore on Visual Hunt)

Puerto Rico mayors take stand against school closures

SAN JUAN — After Puerto Rico Education Secretary Julia Keleher announced Thursday that 283 more public schools will be closed, several mayors expressed concern with the decision, despite having been recently convened by the department official to discuss the matter.

Many mayors did not show up, such as Caguas Mayor William Miranda, who said he was concerned over the closure of 10 schools in his municipality.

“As mayor, I’m very aware of the fiscal scenario the country is going through, but balancing public finances should not be done at the expense of the education of our new generations. Direct dialogue and citizen participation in this process are crucial for a balance in decision-making and the benefit of students and the school community in general,” Miranda said.

Dorado Mayor Carlos López said the that with the school closures “the future of children is being closed” as well and claimed that the municipalities are not part of the process.

“In Dorado’s case, it is completely illogical to close five schools in our jurisdiction, including in the urban area. Municipalities were not aware of the decisions made and we have not been told whether alternatives for how to keep these schools open exist,” López said in a statement.

“The Education secretary made us invest in the reconstruction of the Teresa Préstamo School, giving us the right to adopt it and we achieved surpassing the expectation for enrollment, and now, for no reason, fails to fulfill her commitment and keep her word, closing [the school] to the Espinosa community, thus we request respect for students, parents and teachers. In addition, we demand that the Education Department make available the mechanisms so that towns can take over the schools and avoid closing them,” he added.

Puerto Rico Education secretary announces closure of 283 public schools

Amid criticism by the Popular Democratic Party (PDP) minority mayors, Public Affairs & Public Policy Secretary Ramón Rosario denounced that most were absent from the meeting organized by Keleher.

In a statement Friday, Rosario said only three of the 45 PDP mayors attended the meeting, where municipal executives could have made their case.

“When they had the opportunity to contribute, they declined. In fact, the president of the Mayors Association himself, Rolando Ortiz, was absent.” The association is composed of PDP mayors.

The Public Affairs secretary denied any political bias in the decision-making process, arguing that five of the 10 most affected municipalities have New Progressive Party (NPP) majority mayors.

Another municipal official that reacted was Morovis Mayor Carmen Maldonado, who posted on her Twitter account that “[Gov. Ricardo] Rosselló has declared war on the children of Morovis when announcing the closure of the Carlos Alverio, Manuel A. Díaz and SU David Colón Vega schools. This mayor will defend these schools together with the communities.”

San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz warned that she would also fight against the closures.

“To close schools is to break apart a community; it’s to tell the school community that they don’t count. In San Juan, we will fight the closures,” Cruz tweeted, and that “there are schools in the San Juan closure list where the municipality invested thousands of dollars to put them in[working] condition and now [serve as] example.”

The public affairs secretary further said it was “unfortunate that some mayors from the Mayors Association once again use an issue as important as school closures to misinform,” and that Lajas Mayor Marcos Irizarry could “attest that we listen to reasonable approaches without looking at [party] colors. The Ramón Olivares de Lajas School was left open due to the mayor’s reasonable approach.”

Rosario explained that during the school selection process “only the well-being of students was analyzed, with input from the community and from the mayors who contributed.”

Meanwhile, Vega Alta Mayor Oscar Santiago announced he will fight alongside the communities to keep the schools open.

“We will defend the permanence of the Antonio Paoli School, located in Urb. Santa Rita de Vega Alta because this school is a model in the educational region. It is based on the Montessori Method and it is excellent. They’ve already closed a school in the Maricao neighborhood. One can understand the Education Department’s fiscal reasons, but the Antonio Paoli School is an example of what we can achieve as a country if we invest in the education of our children,” Santiago wrote.

The mayor also said he will also defend the Barrio Bajuras school, a community removed from Vega Alta’s urban center and also separated by the Cibuco River, which overflows under heavy rains.

Former NPP Rep. María Vega said the list of schools to be closed includes one that was renovated under the Plan for 21st Century Schools via a legislative allocation she procured while representing District 11 of the towns of Vega Alta, Dorado and Vega Baja.

“I think the Education secretary should take a little walk around these schools and reconsider a decision that represents greater setbacks than advantages for the educational system,” she said, referring to the José D. Rosado school in Barrio Bajura Almirante and the Antonio Paoli school in the Santa Rita urbanization.

–CyberNews contributed to this report.

Puerto Rico Education secretary announces closure of 283 public schools

SAN JUAN — Puerto Rico Education Secretary Julia Keleher announced Thursday the closure of 283 schools across the island, a move that would achieve a saving of an estimated $150 million.

She explained that the numbers of closures by August was reached in part after an analysis and visits to an initial number of schools suggested by the directors of the Regional Educational Offices based on various specific or combined factors.

(Juan J. Rodríguez/CB)

Those factors include enrollment, low percentage of space use, school premises condition, areas of criminal incidence, distance, accessibility, academic achievement, and special education services.

“There is no specific combination in any of the cases,” the secretary said. She assured that displaced department employees would be reassigned to other schools.

“We know it is a painful and difficult process. Because of this, it has been done in the most sensitive way possible, taking into consideration all the elements that could impact the daily life of some families and school communities in general. Likewise, we encouraged mayors to submit proposals for schools that will be left in disuse so these schools can become activity centers for their communities,” Keleher said.

She also said that the department’s budget for the next school year ensures the possibility of offering the resources that students need, adding that, since May 2017, there are 38,762 fewer students enrolled.

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In addition, Keleher assured funds were assigned to provide the necessary materials and faculty needed.

“This reflects a responsible and transparent fiscal planning ensuring that commitment to the students is first and equally reflects the reality that, in almost half of existing schools, only 60 percent of their capacity is being used,” she explained.

The secretary added that under Act 3 of 2017, which decrees the purposes for agencies to take temporary emergency measures to achieve continued government operation that can provide essential services, the department’s resources will be maximized amid the fiscal reality.

Bill that would consolidate Puerto Rico Energy Commission passed by House

SAN JUAN – The Puerto Rico House of Representatives passed Tuesday reorganization plans that propose to create the Public Service Regulatory Board (PSRB) and transfer the functions of the Board of Education to the Department of State.

Reorganization Plan 8, which the administration reintroduced to the Legislature with amendments at the beginning of March, would merge the Public Service Commission, the Telecommunications Regulatory Board, the Independent Office of Consumer Protection, the Energy Administration and the Energy Commission (PREC) under the PSRB umbrella.

The inclusion of PREC in the consolidation plan has produced significant discussion. Several sectors argue that merging the panel responsible for overseeing and enforcing the island’s public energy policy since 2014 would undermine its independence and transparency.

Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s proposal, which would integrate three new bureaus under the same administrative structure, is expected to achieve savings of up to $13 million after the first year and close to $70 million by the next five years.

Although several legislators have denounced that the plan usurps PREC’s autonomy, the bill establishes that “the bureaus will have complete independence of decisional criteria and autonomy to address the issues under their jurisdiction and implement the public policy of their respective laws.”

One of the most debated matters is the power the chairperson of the PSRB would have to review the bureaus’ final decisions.

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

The spokesman for the House delegation of the Popular Democratic Party (PDP) minority, Rafael “Tatito” Hernández, joined this concern.

“This measure, as drafted, still has numerous doubts about how the decisions will be made. We are approving a plan for which we don’t know what the public policy will be,” he said while objecting that the plans should be approved along with the bills that will dictate how each reorganization will be carried out.

The president of the Government Development Bank (GDB), Christian Sobrino, said Tuesday that the intention of La Fortaleza, or the governor’s office, is to eliminate the Energy Bureau from the revision that would allow the chairperson to annul bureau decisions “when the repeal bill” that will accompany the plan “is presented.”

PDP Rep. Rafael “Tatito” Hernández questioned the lack of details in the reorganization plans. (Courtesy)

For his part, the spokesman of the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP) minority, Denis Márquez, echoed the PDP lawmaker’s claims when criticizing that the Legislative Assembly cannot make amendments to the plans, which has forced La Fortaleza to withdraw and amend several proposals.

“I will be voting against this and any reorganization plan that uses the mechanisms of Act 122 [New Government Act], for it is unconstitutional because it undermines the constitutional prerogatives of this body,” the legislator said.

In the case of Reorganization Plan 6, the faculties of the Board of Education are transferred to the Board of Postsecondary Institutions, a new entity that created by the plan that would be attached to the Department of State. The original plan, withdrawn by La Fortaleza, aimed to transfer board functions to the Department of Education.

“The savings and efficiencies projected with the implementation of this plan are estimated at up to $8 million for the first year and around $40 million for the next five years,” Rosselló’s plan reads.

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Both plans were approved by the Senate on March 12. These join the reorganizations of the Model Forest Office and the Labor Department, for a total of four plans passed by the legislature.

The plans to make changes to the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture (ICP) and the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources (DNER) await consideration.

In addition, the Senate passed Tuesday a resolution to express that “there is no agreement with the House” on Reorganization Plan 7, which proposes to consolidate five entities within the Economic Development & Commerce Department (DDEC by its Spanish acronym), including the Institute of Statistics.

“Through this resolution, we notify the Governor of Puerto Rico of the extension of 15 additional days to the original term [for evaluation] for the Legislative Assembly to express its approval or rejection of Reorganization Plan 7,” S.R. 683 reads. The Legislature will now have until mid-April to evaluate the plan.

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

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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