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Democrats Slam Plan to Close Hundreds of Schools in Puerto Rico

More than 30 Democrats in Congress are calling on Puerto Rico's governor to put the brakes on plans to close hundreds of public schools on the island.

In their Monday letter to Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, the lawmakers say that closing these schools in the wake of Hurricanes Irma and Maria would hurt 66,000 students and teachers and have a "disastrous impact" on student learning. They also decry concurrent plans to open charter schools on the island and introduce vouchers, proposals that were adopted by Puerto Rico's legislature and approved by Rosselló earlier this year.

"We call on your administration to institute a moratorium on all school closing until a full, fair, and transparent needs assessment is conducted and determines how to best provide Puerto Rico's students with an equal opportunity to education. The long-term health and recovery of Puerto Rico depends on it," the Democrats say in their letter, which was headlined by Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz.

The governor and Puerto Rico Secretary of Education Julia Keleher have said the school closures will help the island get on its feet financially, and that many of the schools have significantly fewer students attending than their actual capacity in the wake of last years severe storms. Keleher has also said that teachers at schools slated to close won't be laid off and will have the opportunity to transfer to schools that will open their doors to students at schools scheduled to shut down. She's also emphasized that she is ultimately responsible for students, not adult concerns. 

But the teachers' union in Puerto Rico and others on the island have denounced the plan. They've argued that it would amount to "killing" hundreds of communities. Since September, union President Aida Díaz and others have been increasingly at odds with Keleher over the long-term fate of public schools on the island. 

The U.S. territory closed 179 schools last summer because of declining enrollment. Puerto Rico's total population was declining significantly before Hurricanes Irma and Maria, and the island's government has been dealing with crippling financial woes for some time. 

The plan from Keleher's department released about a month ago called for 283 schools to be closed, although an updated list provided to us earlier this week by the department appears to reduce that number slightly. 

So far, the House and Senate education committees have not held hearings dedicated to Puerto Rico's schools after the two storms. Puerto Rico's public schools educate roughly 320,000 students, which would technically make it one of the largest districts in the United States. The Democrats say Puerto Rico should first call a halt to its school closure plan, and then conduct a "needs assessment" to properly determine priorities for the island's students. 

Click here for our on-the-ground coverage about Puerto Rico's schools after Hurricane Maria

And read the full letter from 32 congressional Democrats below:


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