Puerto Rico is planning to close 283 schools — or nearly a third of its public schools — to save money and address declining enrollment that resulted from devastation that the U.S. territory sustained during 2017’s Hurricane Maria. The closings come as island leaders are starting an initiative to open charter schools and voucher programs.
The decision to close the schools was announced Thursday by Education Secretary Julia Keleher, who said her department hoped to save about $150 million, though it would do so without laying off teachers or other personnel.
“We know it’s a difficult and painful process,” Keleher told the Associated Press. “Our children deserve the best education that we are capable of giving them taking into account Puerto Rico’s fiscal reality.”
Puerto Rico was devastated by Hurricane Maria, and some 40,000 students are reported to have left the island. Keleher said that almost half of the public schools on the island are only 60 percent filled.
On March 29, 2018, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló signed a school choice bill that will allow charter schools (which are publicly funded but independently operated) and voucher programs (which allow public money to be used for private and religious schools) to be established.
When the 283 schools are closed this summer, there will be 828 traditional public schools still open this coming fall, she said. For the first time, 10 percent of the schools will have charter school pilot programs, which will be run independently from the district schools. Private school vouchers will be offered in the 2019-20 school year to 3 percent of students.
School choice is championed by President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, though opposed by public education advocates who fear that privatization of schools will make an inequitable system even more so.
Aida Diaz, president of a union that represents some 30,000 teachers, told the AP that she would fight the closing of the schools.