The Progressive Magazine: A School Crisis
Politicians in Puerto Rico are seeking to solve decades of fiscal mismanagement by adopting the same education reforms that are hurting children and starving school districts in the mainland United States. The disaster capitalism coming to the azure waters of Puerto Rico is very similar to the school privatization and private-control education reform causing an uproar in Chicago and Detroit.
A day strike by thousands of teachers across the island of Puerto Rico on Tuesday demonstrated the intensity of their concern about the new regime.
In October, Senator Eduardo Bhatia fast-tracked Project 1456 in the Puerto Rican Senate. School closure requirements in 1456 are the first notable parallel with the Detroit and Chicago school privatization playbook. In Chicago, 50 schools (primarily in African-American neighborhoods) were recently closed under the pretext that they were under-enrolled. A University of Chicago study showed that after neighborhood school closure, students were shuffled to a new set of low-performing schools— often charter schools.
In Michigan, the state created the Education Achievement Authority (EAA), an education board similar to the one proposed in Project 1456. Michigan is different from other states because the vast majority of its charter schools are already run by for-profit companies. The Detroit News reports that the EAA and the for-profit charters have been plagued by low performance and corruption.
Since 2014, the Puerto Rican government has closed 135 schools— about 10% of the schools on the island. The results of these school closings are class sizes as large as 40 students. The new law requires the closure of 400 more public schools—30% of the remaining public schools on the island. Additionally, Project 1456 requires that the government turn at least 15% of schools into Lider (charter schools) every three years under the auspices of private control and the education authority.
While a debate rages on the quality of charter schools in the United States, most peer-reviewed literature demonstrates that charters typically perform no better than traditional public schools. Nor do charter schools serve all students.
While many in the mainland United States argue that charter schools are public schools— this bill makes it clear that Lider schools are public schools in name only. The bill amends Puerto Rico’s 1951 pension law by explicitly stating that charter school teachers are not public employees. As a result, they will not have access to the public pension retirement system.
While the rest of the United States is finally retreating from high-stakes testing after the failed No Child Left Behind experiment, Puerto Rico is going in the opposite direction. Project 1456 intensifies the focus on high-stakes testing. It creates a high-stakes teacher evaluation system where educators’ value is tied to three years of testing “growth.” If teachers don’t raise scores, they are fired. Statistical experts from the American Education Research Association recently publicly decried the extensive misuse of test scores by policymakers for teacher evaluation.
In some ways, Puerto Rico is moving even further than Chicago and Detroit. The most bold provision of the new law is the codification of a majority vote (the boundaries and requirement of which are not defined in the legislation) to take schools from communities and place them under the auspices of the private charter operator and the education authority.
This approach is called a “trigger vote.” A school can be taken from public control by a vote of 51% of “parents of students enrolled in said school, who are present at the vote.” A surprising new twist in 1456 is that teachers can also take a school away from a community with a 51% trigger vote. However, the legislation does not stipulate that if teachers and parents are unhappy with the results of the trigger the school can return to from private to public status. The trigger vote is a one-way street to privatization by permanently transferring millions of dollars of public property assets into private hands.
Will private control and privatization approaches improve student achievement in Puerto Rico? After many years of private control reforms, Chicago and Detroit are still performing near the bottom as measured by average 2013 NAEP math and reading scores (4th and 8th) when compared with other large U.S. cities. The “education reforms” in Puerto Rico are being marketed as a route to academic improvement for Puerto Rican children. But the genesis of these ideas has nothing to do with students. It’s all about debt.
CNN Money reported that a group of 34 hedge funds led by Fir Tree Partners funded a report by three economists that calls for Puerto Rico to close some schools, reduce university subsidies and fire teachers so it can pay back its debt.
The privatization of Puerto Rico’s schools is a way to address the tens of billions of dollars in debt that Puerto Rican politicians have accrued over the past several decades. Will Puerto Rico satiate their addiction to debt on the backs of impoverished children? The answer hinges on the passage of 1456.
Julian Vasquez Heilig is the Westcoast Regional Fellow of the Progressive Education Fellows.
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