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Plan Would Close More Than a Quarter of Puerto Rico's Public Schools

puerto-rico-01-juanita-negron-reyes-food-600.jpg

A new fiscal plan from Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló would close more than 300 of the island's roughly 1,100 schools, part of a larger government reorganization effort designed to help the island recover from two hurricanes last year, according to news reports.

The proposal from Rosselló released earlier this week would save an estimated $300 million by fiscal year 2022 for the island, which suffered significant damage and population loss, particularly after Hurricane Maria struck in September. The plan anticipates a decline in enrollment of 27,500 students, as well as a drop of 7,300 in the teaching workforce, Primera Hora reported Thursday. There would also be additional administrative consolidation.

Last month, Puerto Rico's Secretary of Education Julia Keleher informed us that all but a small percentage of the island's schools had reopened, even though many remained without electricity, and that about 331,000 students were in public schools, down from about 350,000 before Maria. On Thursday, Keleher released new statistics about the share of students and teachers who had returned to schools compared to pre-Maria levels. In San Juan, for example, 78 percent of students had returned to their schools, Keleher reported. The city of Bayamón just outside San Juan, meanwhile, had the lowest share of students and teachers who had returned. 

Click here to read our on-the-ground reporting from Puerto Rico from last October, shortly after Maria hit the island.

The governor's plan needs approval from the Board of Fiscal Supervision.

The island and its school system were already struggling with dire financial problems before Maria struck. Last summer, Keleher's department closed 179 schools as part of a larger strategy to deal with the island's estimated $120 million debt and pension crisis. Student enrollment in Puerto Rico's schools had also dropped significantly in the recent years before the hurricane.

Rosselló said that the school closures proposed in his plan reflected the island's declining population and student enrollment, and the need to have subsequent plans for schools "that are not divorced from that reality," El Vocero newspaper reported.

However, Asociación de Maestros de Puerto Rico (AMPR) President Aida Díaz and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten criticized the plan to close schools in a statement released Thursday, saying schools were critical community hubs and could help schools overcome trauma.

They also warned against any attempt to privatize Puerto Rico's schools, an issue we touched on last fall. (AMPR, which had about 40,000 members before Hurricane Maria, is an AFT affiliate.)

"To thrive, Puerto Rico needs to keep schools open, not close them, and that's why the push for mass school closings falls wide of the mark," Díaz and Weingarten said. 

Photo: Juanita Negrón Reyes, principal of the Bernardo Gonzalez Colon School in Utuado, Puerto Rico, works on prepping food for disaster-recovery efforts last October. (Swikar Patel/Education Week)

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