SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Puerto Rico's governor announced Monday that he will push to create charter schools and vouchers and give all public school teachers their first raise in a decade as part of a plan to transform the U.S. territory's education system.
Gov. Ricardo Rossello said he will submit proposed legislation Tuesday that also would strengthen vocational schools, allow parents to have more freedom in choosing a child's school and create an island-wide bilingual model that prioritizes subjects including math and science.
Rossello noted Puerto Rico's education department has long been known for its bureaucracy and failure to set aside money for classroom supplies, among many other problems. Parents have long complained about a lack of teachers, some of whom are not paid on time.
"A full faculty will be assigned for each school," the governor said. "We cannot accept that students and parents have to endure being without an appointed teacher."
The announcement comes as Puerto Rico faces a sharp drop in enrollment, with 25,000 students alone leaving since Hurricane Maria hit in September. More than five months later, some 270 schools are still without power. Officials say they expect to lose 54,000 students overall in the next four years as the island struggles to recover from the storm amid an 11-year-old recession. The school system already saw enrollment drop by 78,000 students the past four years.
Rossello said his new public policy aims to decentralize the Department of Education in part to increase accountability and ensure that 70 percent of the budget reaches schools. In addition to implementing charter schools, he said the educational voucher program will start in the 2019-2020 school year.
Rossello's party has the majority in both the island's House and Senate, and several legislators said they would support his proposal. But critics called the plan a first step in privatizing the education system just days after Rossello announced he aims to privatize Puerto Rico's power company.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, accused Rossello of abandoning public schools.
"To say that schools that have already been starved should be further starved so he can privatize options is an abandonment of public education," she said in a phone interview. "He's proposing to create more austerity."
Rossello recently submitted a fiscal plan that calls for the closure of 300 schools, a measure that union leaders including Weingarten have criticized. Last year, education officials announced that they would be closing more than 150 public schools as a result of the drop in enrollment.
Overall, Puerto Rico has 1,110 public schools and 319,000 students.
Jaime Morales, who has been a public school teacher for 18 years, said in a phone interview that even though Rossello plans to give teachers a $1,500 annual salary increase, it's not enough.
"We can't make ends meet with the cost of living," he said, adding that teachers are often forced to buy their own supplies. "Books are scarce."
Education Secretary Julia Keleher told The Associated Press that when she was appointed to oversee the public school system, she was most shocked by its lack of equity, saying some schools received their full $7,000-per-student funding while others got $2,000.
"It became obvious that the system isn't driven by what's best for the student, and that there's an enormous bureaucracy," she said. "The system has a lot of problems."