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Sens. Sanders, Warren Blast Plans to Change Puerto Rico's School System


Puerto Rico's public schools should be preserved and strengthened, not shunted aside in favor of charter schools and vouchers, Democratic lawmakers and the American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said here on Thursday.

Sens. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts said the plan for the island's educational system, put forward by Gov. Ricardo Rosselló and Secretary of Education Julia Keleher, would hurt Puerto Rico's recovery. (More on that plan, which hasn't gotten final approval, below.)

The senators touted the Puerto Rico and Virgin Islands Equitable Rebuild Act, written by Sanders and cosponsored by Blumenthal and Warren, as a "Marshall Plan"-style effort to rebuild Puerto Rico, referring to the influx of financial aid for Europe after World War II. The bill would provide $3.16 billion in aid to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands in fiscal 2018 for education and Head Start.

Go here for our on-the-ground reporting examining Puerto Rico's schools' progress and lingering challenges from about a month ago. We also visited schools there in early October. Hurricane Maria struck the island in September, causing extensive damage and triggering fears about the island's future. 

The senators spoke at an event hosted by the Albert Shanker Institute, which supports public education and the role of unions. 

Nearly all of Puerto Rico's public schools have reopened, but some don't have power at all and must conduct classes in the dark. Enrollment in public schools stands at about 320,000, down from a pre-Hurricane Maria level of 350,000. Some schools have only intermittent power. 

Rosselló and Keleher have made waves for proposing to close about 300 public schools, more than a quarter of the island's 1,100, and introducing new schools similiar to charter schools. Keleher has also said she wants to introduce vouchers to Puerto Rico, although she said the island's situation needs to stabilize first.

You can watch Keleher discuss her views on the island's system here or in the video above. Both officials say it would accelerate a badly needed overhaul of the island's schools that pre-dates Hurricane Maria. 

'Disrupt and Destabilize'

However, the island's teachers' union vigorously opposes the plan because of the impact it says it would have on teachers' jobs, students, and local communities. Sanders and others echoed the union's opposition on Thursday.

"The proposal in Puerto Rico to transition to charter schools and the use of private school vouchers is one that mirrors what happened in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina," Sanders said.

"The school privatization proposal in Puerto Rico would pull much-needed money away from public schools. ... The proposal at hand would completely disrupt and destabilize the existing public school system already struggling to rebuild."

Warren also attacked the federal government's efforts to help Puerto Rico recover as "embarrassing," saying Washington needed to do much more. 

"Now is the time for Puerto Rico to redouble its investment in public education. Cuts to education send a grim message about the future of the island," she said.

Federal data on Puerto Rico's school performance is scanty compared to statistics people have become accustomed to seeing about states and the District of Columbia. But the available information indicates that the island's students have struggled academically for several years. 

Keleher told Education Week that the island's educational system had been in decline since it served Puerto Ricans now in their 50s, and that it no longer provides what could be considered a high-quality education to all children.

"I have a lot less [money than many U.S. mainland school systems] and I have to go a lot further," Keleher said. "So what we're going to do is not talk about what, for a community, one school might be, but what is the best utilization for the common good, for the collective benefit, of the student population?"

But Weingarten said rather than close schools and create charters and vouchers, Puerto Rico should get new community schools, expanded learning time for students, and new professional learning hubs for teachers. 

"Public schools were the first places many people were able to get a hot meal," Weingarten said, referring to the immediate aftermath of Maria. "They are the pillars of any effort to rebuild Puerto Rico." 

Blumenthal and Warren are Democrats, while Sanders is an independent who caucuses with the Democrats. Other cosponsors are Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J.; Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.; Sen. Kamala Harris D-Calif., and Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass.

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