Hurricane Maria’s aftermath has left the island of Puerto Rico in a devastating state. The slow recovery and prolonged economic crisis, has forced the Department of Education to close 283 schools this summer in efforts to save $303 million in the next five or so years. But what does this mean for Puerto Rican youth and being able to receive quality education?
Overall enrollment in Puerto Rico has dropped more than 38,700 since last May. The island is also $120 billion in debt. It’s frustrating and concerning that education is one of the first places being targeted when it comes to budget cuts.
Education Secretary Julia Keleher insists that no teachers or school employees will be laid off but instead will be reassigned to other schools. She claims that because enrollment has dropped more than 38,700 students since last May, most of the schools on the island are only using around 60 percent of their capacity. Close to 40,0000 students are reported to have left Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.
“We know it’s a difficult and painful process,” Keleher said. “Our children deserve the best education that we are capable of giving them taking into account Puerto Rico’s fiscal reality.”
But there’s more. Puerto Rico announced its closing of public schools two weeks after Gov. Ricardo Rossello signed a bill to implement a charter schools pilot program in 10 percent of public schools on the island. As for private schools, vouchers would be offered to around 3 percent of students beginning in 2019-2020.
But even though Keleher and Rossello claim this is what the island needs right now, many Puerto Ricans believe this will ultimately be more damaging than anything and they might be right.
“The damage that the Secretary of Education is doing to children, youth and their parents is immeasurable,” Aida Diaz, president of a union said in a statement sent to the Associated Press.
The situation in Puerto Rico has been tragic, to say the least. Not only did the hurricane leave millions without power, running water, food, and in many cases jobs, but the suicide rate has also spiked in recent months. The island is having a serious mental health crisis on top of a severe economical crisis. Economist, Lyman Stone predicts that the island’s population will only continue to shrink, which is why on one hand we can understand the motive behind closing so many schools if so many Puerto Ricans have been leaving the island. But one can’t help but wonder how this will effect students on the island on a larger scale.
Could closing so many schools result in longer more difficult commutes for certain students who live in certain parts of the island? Are other important educational resources going to be cut as well? Are they really going to be able to keep all teachers and school employees from getting laid off even after closing so many schools? These are the questions a lot of Puerto Ricans are probably asking themselves right now.
In fact, a number of teachers, activists and parents are concerned about how these cuts and closures will “limit students’ access to education.”
“This is like killing 300 communities,” Diaz told Education Week. “We’re going to have communities that are not going to have any schools. The only place they have to meet is the school.”
Hopefully if enough people rally together to fight the closures, the government can consider shutting down less schools because in the long run it might do more harm than good to the people of Puerto Rico.