Teachers protest the collapse of public education in Puerto Rico

Teachers protest the collapse of public education in Puerto Rico
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Thousands of teachers are protesting in Oklahoma and Kentucky because state governments hardly fund their schools. Similarly, 15,000 teachers walked out of their classrooms in Puerto Rico in the past month alone.

Puerto Rico’s educational system is suffering a demographic collapse.

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In 1980, 712,880 students attended public schools in Puerto Rico. Now, there are less than half: fewer than 320,000 students. Only 12 percent of the missing enrollments went to local private schools. Instead, countless Puerto Rican parents moved their children to Florida, New York, or elsewhere.  

 

Incredibly, 709 public schools have shut down in Puerto Rico since 1980. Now, the government plans to shut down 305 schools in 2018 alone, to save $1 million per school annually. There will be a net loss of 1,014 schools. It’s a shameful point in a long history of mismanagement that wrecked public education.

Six months after Hurricane Maria, nearly a third of the schools had no electricity. More than forty schools were so damaged that they could not reopen. And yet, the largest problems predate the hurricane.

As a professor at the University of Texas, I teach “History of Money and Corruption.” One awful kind of corruption is the misuse of public funds aimed at education.

Growing up in Puerto Rico, I studied at three public schools and graduated from one of them. Those schools were sturdy buildings with desks, students, teachers, and staff. There was no science equipment, no computers, no music instruments, no medical supplies, no after-school programs, and no sporting equipment whatsoever.

Today, the schools lack more basic resources. Every semester, parents receive long lists of things to buy, including whiteboard markers, drinking water, heavy-duty cleansers, soap, and toilet paper. This shows that Puerto Rico’s Department of Education (PRDE) invests hardly anything in its broken-down schools, aside from paltry salaries for teachers.

From 2013 to 2016, the PRDE received $10.02 billion in funding, including federal funds. Afterwards, $724.8 million were left over. How can that huge surplus remain — when the schools had no toilet paper?  

There were enough funds to allocate $1 million to each school per year, with an additional $2 billion dollars to burn. Where is the money going?

To waste and corruption.

In February, tax collectors audited 44 schools and discovered 110 people who received paychecks in January although they no longer worked for those schools.If all 1107 public schools are audited, we might find roughly 2,600 “employees” who receive salaries without working at all.

Another egregious waste of public funds is to hire “consultants.” Frequently, administrators disregard salaried employees by hiring outside contractors at outrageous costs.

Recently, Puerto Rico’s Secretary of Education, Julia Keleher, contracted the Joseph & Edna Josephson Institute of Ethics to “teach values” to Puerto Rican students, for five months—for the huge price of $16.9 million. There was no open bidding for the contract. When reporters asked why she hired that firm, Keleher replied, “because yes.”

When asked how the firm contacted her, Keleher smiled, “I don’t know, the truth is that I don’t know how, the majority of, there are people with whom I have meetings, and I don’t know who they are when they sit down.”

Keleher herself sells consulting services in education. In 2017, the governor of Puerto Rico hired Keleher as Secretary of Education, and also to restructure public education, to thus serve practically as a consultant to herself. As Secretary, the law allowed a maximum of $106,000 compensation. However, the government paid her $286,363 for her first twelve months, almost three times more than the previous Secretary, and grossly more than secretaries of education in the states who oversee millions of students instead of just three hundred thousand.

For Puerto Ricans like myself, it’s painful to see educational funds wasted.

For $16.9 million, the Joseph & Edna Josephson firm provides card stock images of smiling animals featuring words such as “Respect,” “Civics,” and “Justice.” Plus, the firm will train school personnel to teach ethics.

The price tag is indefensibly grotesque. The President of the association of social workers in Puerto Rico, Larry Alicea affirms that social workers already teach values in schools and that Keleher does not deserve her position because of the spurious multi-million-dollar contract. The former President of the Federation of Teachers of Puerto Rico, Jesús Delgado complainsthe contract “cries in the eyes of God,” and that Keleher should resign.

Throughout the United States, teachers and parents are denouncing the looting of public funds. What is happening in Puerto Rico is clear evidence that if American teachers don't continue to protest, public schools can certainly get worse.  

Alberto A. Martinez is a professor in the History Department of the University of Texas at Austin and a Public Voices Fellow at the Op Ed Project.