Historically, Mother Nature limits the number of hurricanes Puerto Rico must withstand in a 12-month period. Teacher unions do not.
Last week, Puerto Rico lawmakers sent a proposal to Gov. Ricardo Rossello’s desk that would create more learning opportunities for K-12 students, and teacher unions created a storm.
The proposals should sound familiar to those on the mainland. Lawmakers want to create a relatively modest number of charter schools (potentially 14 schools for an island of some 300,000 students) and a K-12 private school scholarship program limited to 3 percent of the student population. Such ideas helped New Orleans’ students get back to their desks after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Cue the howls from the island’s teacher union. One union leader says Puerto Rico’s Secretary of Education, Julia Keleher just wants to “shut down schools” and “privatize” education. Unions led a protest in San Juan on March 19.
Such criticism and claims that the territory should do something else about its tight budget are not helpful to an island in nothing short of a crisis. Puerto Rico is trying to declare bankruptcy in the face of $120 billion bond and pension debt, and teacher pensions are part of the problem. The New York Times says the teacher’s pension fund “works like a Ponzi scheme” with commitments to retired teachers at some $13 billion. The Gray Lady says,
“[The] pension funds are so short of cash that money contributed by working teachers basically flows straight out to retirees. None of Puerto Rico’s current teachers can expect to get their money back, because the fund is due to run out of money in 2018, long before they retire.”
Over-commitments to what the Wall Street Journal calls “generous government welfare programs” cannot be sustained at the same time as a dwindling tax base, as documented, again, by papers like the Times and U.S. Census figures, and dwindling K-12 public school enrollment. From the 1999-2000 school year to 2013-2014, Puerto Rico’s K-12 enrollment dropped from 540,000 to 397,000, a 26 percent decrease. Officials closed 150 schools between 2010 and 2015, according to U.S. News.
School closures accelerated with the territory’s fiscal crisis. Another 179 were slated to close as of last May. In January, officials proposed closing 300 more schools. The department of education estimates another 20,000 students left Puerto Rico after Maria.
Finding basic necessities for the territory and getting the lights back on are crucial, as are efforts to deal with crushing debt. But so is providing residents with hope and opportunities. Parents should have more options about where and how their children learn. Hurricanes and teacher union protests may be out of parents’ control, but policymakers can at least give families more control over what is best for their child’s education.