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Charter Schools May Come to Puerto Rico, But Don't Expect Another New Orleans

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Since Puerto Rico was devastated by Hurricane Maria five months ago, people have been drawing parallels between the island and New Orleans—where more than 10 years ago the destruction of Hurricane Katrina paved the way for a complete overhaul of its education system.

Today, almost all of the city's schools are charters.

Comparisons between New Orleans and Puerto Rico gained even more traction this week after Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló announced plans to file legislation that would shake up K-12 education in the U.S. territory and inject school choice into the system.

But it would be premature to call Puerto Rico the next New Orleans, despite the similarities. Yes, Puerto Rico's schools were struggling mightily before they were devastated by a hurricane as was the case in New Orleans. And yes, some of Puerto Rico's leaders say they intend to use charter schools to help retool and rebuild the education system.

But while there are opportunities for school choice expansion in the territory—Rosselló's plan also calls for school vouchers—there are major hurdles to doing anything on the order of what transpired in New Orleans.

Charter Schools Face Big Challenges in Puerto Rico

Charter schools have been cast for a far smaller role in the Rosselló's proposed education overhaul than they were in New Orleans, at least for now. Puerto Rico's education secretary told The 74 that the government plans to start with 14 charter schools divided evenly among the territory's seven education regions. The governor's plan allows for both new charter school campuses to open up, but also for charter operators to take over existing district schools.

There are currently no charter schools in the territory.

"I think one of the big hurdles is they don't have much of a history with charter schools," said Todd Ziebarth, the vice president for state advocacy for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Louisiana, by contrast, had allowed charter schools to operate in the state for almost a decade before Hurricane Katrina washed out New Orleans. That experience helped shape its policies in New Orleans, said Ziebarth.

An existing charter sector also helped attract high-profile charter school networks and other people in the education reform industry to New Orleans, said Douglas Harris, the director of the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans at Tulane University.

"Some of the relationships were already built, and once the policy design took shape, it became clear that this would be an attractive place to be for charter operators," said Harris.

Post Katrina New Orleans turned out to be a huge draw for young, ambitious workers who wanted to be part of the city's recovery effort (of course, that spurred a different set of issues as many experienced black educators were fired after the storm, decimating the union, and replaced with inexperienced white teachers). It's too soon to know, yet, if Puerto Rico will be the same.

Teach For America, which supplied hundreds of educators to many schools in New Orleans after the hurricane, does not operate in Puerto Rico and has no plans to.

New Orleans' education reforms were also driven and overseen by a statewide, turnaround district, called the Recovery School District, which had been created well before the storm hit.

"All the institutional infrastructure was in place before Katrina," said Harris.

Although New Orleans is mostly made up independent charter schools and private schools, it's still a relatively centralized system compared to other cities with lots of school choices, like Detroit. For example, most schools in the city, including all private schools that accept vouchers, participate in the a single enrollment system. 

"Is it just going to be a complete free-for-all where vouchers, private schools can just take government funds and accept as many students as they want, and let the chips fall where they may?" said Harris. "Or is somebody going to come in and try to coordinate a little bit and only allow enough private schools into the system that's commensurate with the number of students they expect to come back, which is more like what they did in New Orleans."

Finally, Puerto Rico will be dealing with the challenges of rebuilding school buildings across the entire territory, which is somewhat isolated from the U.S. mainland, not just a single city. Pre-hurricanes, New Orleans had about one-tenth the number of schools Puerto Rico did.

Paul Pastorek, the Louisiana state superintendent from 2007 to 2011, offered my colleague Andrew Ujifusa this evaluation of Puerto Rico back in October: "This problem is many times more difficult than the Katrina problem."

"Even if an NGO [non-governmental organization] or nonprofit wanted to help, how do you mobilize arms and legs to go to Puerto Rico to help when it is not close?" Pastorek said. "People will ask, 'Will I be able to live and do work there when there's such devastation there?' "

This Can Still be a Big Moment for School Choice in Puerto Rico

Even with those potential hurdles, there could still be significant opportunities for charter schools in Puerto Rico, said Ziebarth of the National Alliance.

"Part of the original purpose of charter schools is to serve as a laboratory for innovation and to inform broader reform efforts," he said. "I think it is a good opportunity to bring one of those original purposes to life. Things are going to be moving parallel so hopefully as they're creating charter schools they're learning from them and using those lessons to accelerate whatever improvement efforts they're doing for the larger school system."

Related stories:

  • Education Week reporter Andrew Ujifusa has been traveling to Puerto Rico to cover the island's education recovery efforts. You can read the full coverage here
  • Education Week also reported an in-depth, award-winning series on the reform efforts in New Orleans 10  years after Katrina. You can see that coverage here: The Re-Education of New Orleans 

 


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Photo: The flag of Puerto Rico flies in the doorway of Marta Lafontaine elementary and middle school in Utuado, Puerto Rico. The school has been closed since Hurricane Maria devastated the island last fall. —Swikar Patel/Education Week

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