Questions About Education Contracts Shake Up Puerto Rico Yet Again
The president of Puerto Rico's teachers' union has announced she will step down from her position after 17 years, after news reports highlighted her husband's education contracts.
Aida Díaz, the president of the Asociación de Maestros de Puerto Rico (AMPR), said she had already planned to resign before questions surfaced in the Puerto Rican press about her husband Eusebio Rodríguez Oquendo's contracts with the U.S. territory's Department of Education. Díaz denied that her husband's work represented a conflict of interest for her and her union leadership.
Questions about the Puerto Rico Department of Education's contracts have dominated recent stories about the island's school system, which educates roughly 300,000 students and is one of the largest districts in the U.S.
- Julia Keleher, the island's ex-education secretary who led Puerto Rican schools in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, was arrested last month on federal fraud charges related to department contracts. Keleher, who resigned from her position in April, has pleaded not guilty.
- A U.S. Department of Education office of inspector general report released not long after Keleher's arrest reported numerous problems with how the department oversaw post-Maria disaster aid and contracts.
In an interview with Education Week on Monday, Díaz said that an independent process determined who would be awarded these contracts, which her husband first received in 2010 for after-school programs and has had renewed since.
"There is no intervention, nothing that I could do to make the Department of Education approve those proposals," she said. Díaz also said she never spoke with her husband about these contracts or helped him draw them up: "They're saying it's a conflict, and I don't see a conflict."
See Our In-Depth Coverage: Putting Puerto Rico's Schools Back on Track
She also expressed the fear that after massive political protests forced former Gov. Ricardo Rosselló to step down recently, political forces in Puerto Rico would seek to take revenge on his opponents. (Díaz was a critic of Rosselló's education policies.) But she also highlighted dissent within the teacher community over her work at AMPR—Federación de Maestros de Puerto Rico, a vocal educator advocacy group who opposed Keleher's work, criticized Diaz's leadership of the union over the weekend.
Although she said she planned to step down soon from AMPR even before the recent news reports, she also cited concern for her husband after the stories as a factor in her decision.
Keleher and Díaz had high-profile disagreements about several issues, perhaps most prominently Keleher's decision to close hundreds of public schools in the summer of 2018 due in large part to declining enrollment. They also clashed over the government's decision to expand school choice on the island, including a new law passed by the legislature (also in 2018) that among several major changes allowed the opening of charter schools in Puerto Rico for the first time. At one point, Díaz's union went to court unsuccessfully to try to block the new law.
In October 2017 shortly after Hurricane Maria, we highlighted Díaz's efforts to locate and support teachers in the storm's immediate aftermath. "They are cleaning the schools. They are cutting trees," she said of teachers' efforts to get schools up and running again. "They are doing anything just to reopen those schools. No matter what they have in their private lives, they are doing whatever they can."
Díaz said one of AMPR's biggest successes was to ensure schools reopened after the hurricane, as well as the union's work to shore up the "morale of the teachers." She also expressed gratitude for teachers on the U.S. mainland who provided assistance to Puerto Rico's schools after the storm. "We have continued helping the students," she said.
Improving low teacher pay, Díaz said, remains one of the biggest challenges for the union going forward. She wasn't clear on when she will officially step down, saying it could come in the next few weeks or months.
Díaz is a "woman of valor" whose fight against Keleher and Rosselló proved her leadership qualities, AFT President Randi Weingarten said in a statement. (AMPR is an AFT affiliate.)
"I witnessed Díaz, AMPR and Puerto Rico's loving, compassionate and dedicated teachers, work to reopen schools that had been devastated by the hurricane; for many schools, this was only possible because teachers cleaned and repaired them with their bare hands," Weingarten said.
Video: AMPR President Aida Díaz speaks with Education Week in October 2017 about teachers' initial efforts to recover from Hurricane Maria.
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