The Jungle Book: Puerto Rico’s Lost Decade in Education
Part V in a Series
A politicized environment, mismanagement, lack of classroom resources, low teacher salaries, lack of school infrastructure and poor student achievement scores are just some of the many problems that for decades have been plaguing the island’s public school system.
After 10 years of an economic depression that began in 2006, the problems—depending on who you talk to—have been getting worse.
While the Puerto Rico Education Department has consistently been given high sums of money from the central government’s budget, as well as billions in federal funds, time and time again, the system has failed to improve the state of education as achievement tests required under the now defunct No Child Left Behind Act, have attested.
The agency has a budget that is around $2.9 billion a year, down from the almost $4 billion a year, on average, that it spent from 2009 to 2012. Public schools are now operating under a “flexibility plan” and since December 2015, under the U.S. Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which rejects the use of standardized tests to measure student performance.
In the past school year, the agency closed some 93 schools—leaving 1,383 still open—and is reconfiguring 500 schools into four groupings because of a decrease in the number of students amid the massive outmigration and geographical changes, to save $178 million a year.
For years, public school enrollment has been going down. The population of public school students in 2005-2006 was 559,605; during 2006-2007, when Puerto Rico’s recession began, there were 548,089 students. Because of the continuing exodus of residents and a decrease in the number of births, the number of public school students dropped to 423,934 during 2013-2014.
By 2020, the number is expected to fall below 320,000. The result is likely to be more school closures in the future.
Interestingly, the number of students with special needs is going up. During 2006-2007, there were 97,680 special needs students. However, by 2013-2014, the number was 123,754, which has made the issue more challenging.
There has also been a similar reduction in the number of public school teachers, which now total 34,535 from around 45,000 in the mid- to late-1990s.
In the middle of it all are the students in the public school system, some of whom are happy with their education. Alejandra Monclova, an 11th grader at Gilberto Concepción de Gracia School in Carolina, said that when she was in elementary school, the teachers would give her homework every single day. She described her middle school teachers and current high school teachers as very good.
“In the 10th grade, we did not have a math teacher for two months. He arrived two months later, but that was it,” she recalled. Monclova said she has never lacked school materials because students often photocopy materials.
Being a school of the 21st century, the Gilberto Concepción de Gracia has “very good facilities,” she said.
At Lorenzo Vizcarrondo School, also in Carolina, Anthony Valentín Guerrero, a 12th grader, gave a different picture. He said his school is “pretty deteriorated” with areas that have insects and rats. “Some of the doors can’t be opened and the bathrooms are dirty,” he said.
Valentín Guerrero also complained about the lack of internet at his school. He said the Education Department often requires students to read certain materials but does not provide them. “If the curriculum says we have to read [the Spanish drama] ‘Bodas de Sangre,’ but [the department] doesn’t give the books to the teacher and what she has is [the Puerto Rican drama] ‘La Carreta,’ then that is the book that we end up reading,” he said.
Things got worse after 2006 recession
According to Jorge Soto Díaz, who retired as a school principal a few years ago, former Education Secretary César Rey began to revert during his 2000-2004 tenure the fiscal and administrative autonomy given to schools through Acts 18 and 149.
When in May 2006, the subsequent administration of former Gov. Aníbal Acevedo Vilá had to shut down the government after the Legislature, which was controlled by the opposition New Progressive Party, failed to pass a budget with a sales & use tax needed to back a loan to operate government agencies, Soto Díaz said problems at schools got worse. He charges that the Education Department continued to violate the agency’s charter law by tightly controlling school budgets—“to keep that money, the money that belonged to the schools and use it to pay agency debt.”
Back in 2006, Acevedo Vilá allocated some $400 million more to the Education Department and called for more autonomy for schools, even though his Education secretaries were centralizing the decision-making process.
Former Education Secretary Gloria Baquero issued several “circular letters” or memos that altered the dispositions of the law by centralizing fiscal and managerial decisions at the agency. Baquero went as far as ordering that all extracurricular activities suggested by teachers to the school principals be approved by the educational regions and the central offices of the agency, Soto Díaz added.
He sued in 2007 to force the agency to obey its charter law and respect the schools’ autonomy, but was unsuccessful. While Soto Díaz said the current administration is violating the autonomy of schools, Lilia Torres, an Education Department CPA, said school principals can order all the supplies and resources they need through a computer platform. She noted that by law, the central government manages all purchases higher than $50,000 to be made through the General Services Administration.
The purchases are then approved by the agency. But she noted that schools also have separate purchasing cards, which can be used for all purchases that are less than $5,000.
In September 2006, after the recession began, former La Fortaleza Chief of Staff Jorge Silva Puras talked about privatizing some public services. The government also began to talk about giving public schools to private entities or having charter schools. Ten years later, Senate President Eduardo Bhatia introduced a bill that, among other things, will put around 15% of the schools, or those with the lowest achievement scores, under the control of private nonprofit entities.
Academically, public schools in general appear not to have done better academically with time.
By 2009, some 760 of the estimated 1,500 schools were under the purview of “improvement plans” because students had obtained low scores in the Puerto Rican Achievement Tests required under the No Child Left Behind Law, which measured proficiency in English, Spanish and Math.
Under the current administration, Education Secretary Rafael Román reached a Flexibilization Agreement with the U.S. Department of Education that granted certain dispensations to the local agency because of its inability to comply with the requirements of No Child Left Behind. Schools were divided into four categories according to performance. Under the new flexibilization system, the number of schools that have reached their educational goals has increased to 534.
Harry Valentín, the agency’s chief officer of Academic Affairs, said that since 2015, local schools have been under the new federal ESSA, which requires the island to prepare students for college. This week, students are slated to take the so-called META tests, which—unlike the Puerto Rican Academic Achievement tests—will take students’ grades into account.
“If the test shows [students] have certain learning gaps, they have to take summer school in order to help them…. Our goal is to be able to prepare them for their future,” Valentín said.
The year 2015 was one of changes, as the agency closed around 93 schools due to low student enrollment and reconfigured around 500 schools so that some are from kindergarten to grade 5, others from kindergarten to grade 8; others from grades 6 to 8; and others from grades 9 to 12.
According to Soto Díaz, the result has been to create much uncertainty. “We have a disarray in the system,” he said.
Torres countered that the reconfiguration of schools will be in stages, with the goal of having only elementary and middle schools from kindergarten to 8th grade and high schools from ninth to 12th grade, depending on established indicators.
The agency does not foresee closing more schools in the near future, but acknowledged that through the reconfiguration, “some schools may have to be closed,” she said.
School teachers face day-to-day battles
By 2010 or 2011, the number of “regular” public school teachers was around 30,986, representing one teacher for every 14 students, according to the Puerto Rico Statistics Institute. Right now, Torres said there are around 26,886 regular teachers, 7,259 transitory teachers and 390 on probationary status for a total of 34,535 teachers.
Teachers Association President Aida Díaz, Emilio Nieves of teachers group Únete and Domingo Madera of Puerto Rican Educators in Action, said following the law that transformed the Teachers Retirement System and eliminated benefits, which caused thousands of teachers to retire, the number of teachers is expected to go down further. On average, around 1,300 teachers retire every year.
They noted that the number of students willing to become teachers is also going down and they predicted there will eventually be a deficit in the number of available teachers, despite the reduction in the number of students and schools. The latest numbers show that around 900 students a year graduated from the University of Puerto Rico with degrees in Education.
On average, public school teachers make around $1,750 a month in wages because of salary raises that were enacted over the past 10 years, but these wages have remained the same for more than six years. Most teachers have master’s degrees, but this does not translate into higher salaries. Diaz said that while the law allows for merit wages, the agency allegedly does not really honor them.
Valentín said they are working with local universities to ensure there are enough teachers in the areas of “difficult recruitment” such as math, English and science. Still, there are between 100 to 200 positions that must be filled at any given time because teachers leave the system, get sick or go on maternity leave.
Just as teacher performance was evaluated through the standardized tests given to students under No Child Left Behind, Valentín said the new META tests will also be used to measure teachers’ effectiveness.
The problem with special education
Over the past decade, the number of students in special education has gone up from 97,129 in 2006 to 123,754 during 2014-2015. There are currently around 160,000 special needs students in the system.
Díaz said she believes many students with disabilities that can be handled in regular schools are classified as special needs. “The goal should be that such students can eventually move to the regular program,” she said.
Agency numbers show that 40% of these students have a specific learning disability, while the rest have a physical disability, a speech disability or a mental disability.
Over the past decade, parents of students with special needs have often publicly complained about the lack of services, therapies or transportation for their children. The Rosa Lydia Vélez case filed by a mother seeking better services for her daughter was settled after 35 years in the courts and millions of dollars in fines.
While the government settled the Vélez case with the plaintiff, the problems still persist. Because of the fiscal crisis, the Education Department has not paid many suppliers, including therapists. To date, the agency has around $200 million in debt to contractors who provide services to students with special needs.
Valentín said the agency implemented a new response system to help students with learning disabilities before they are put in the special needs stream. He said the goal is to intervene with them early so that they can be placed in the regular educational system. If the intervention does not work, then the students are placed in the special education stream.