Betsy DeVos Is Helping Puerto Rico Re-Imagine Its Public School System. That Has People Worried.

Originally published in The Intercept on February 22, 2018.
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Puerto Rico, in the midst of the chaos and instability following Hurricane Maria, is moving quickly forward with plans to institute a wide swath of education reforms, with the help of the aggressively ideological federal education department, helmed by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Puerto Rico’s governor and education secretary have expressed openness to the concerns raised by parents, teachers and community members, and stress they are not looking to implement an extreme version of privatization. Yet at the same time, they have stoked fears by pushing forward a notably vague charter law that does little to address what people are most worried about. This “trust us” mentality has not been helped by the engagement of DeVos, nor by Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s recent visit to a notorious charter chain in Philadelphia last week — a prime example of the kind of low-performing, fiscally reckless charter that school advocates warn about.

At a time when the island is starved of investment and inching slowly through a storm recovery, many Puerto Ricans worry that the government is treating this more as an opportunity to disrupt education, rather than stabilize it — while also potentially opening the doors for supercharged corruption.

Puerto Rico’s public school system remains severely ravaged since Hurricane Maria, the Category 4 storm that tore through the island in late September. “The recovery has gone very slowly,” said Aida Díaz, president of the island’s 40,000-member teachers union, the Asociación de Maestros de Puerto Rico“We still have hundreds of schools without electricity, internet, and many of our teachers and students are having classes just half-day.”

Rosselló delivered a televised address in early February announcing a package of educational reforms he’d like to bring to the island – including charters, vouchers for private schools, and the first pay increase for teachers in a decade. Puerto Rico teachers earn on average $27,000 a year, and would see increases of $1,500 under the governor’s proposal. “The current educational system does not respond to what is needed to train our students to succeed in a world that’s ever more competitive and complex,” Rosselló  declared.

Rosselló’s big announcement came on the heels of a separate plan he outlined in January, to close 305 of Puerto Rico’s 1,100 public schools. Rosselló said these closures would lead to an estimated $300 million in savings by 2022 – and by extension help the island recover from Maria and its long-term debt crisis. Puerto Rican citizens have long worried the government’s interest in shuttering schools would be a first step on the road to privatization.

While Rosselló’s televised address garnered a lot of national attention, little has been paid to the 136-page bill that was introduced several days later, and the vocal debate it has sparked within the territory.

Who helped craft the bill is not entirely clear.

Díaz, the teachers union president, told The Intercept that her members played absolutely no role in drafting the proposals. “They didn’t consider us, they didn’t invite us, we didn’t participate,” she said.

Todd Ziebarth, senior vice president for the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools, told The Intercept they “were not deeply involved in the bill drafting at all” but that they did have some conversations with people in Puerto Rico’s education department about charter legislation and how other states have handled certain issues. Ziebarth added that while his organization has not done a deep analysis of Puerto Rico’s bill, he thinks “it provides a good start for getting charters up and running.”

DeVos and her federal education department have certainly been involved. DeVos’s Deputy Assistant Secretary Jason Botel has been in “close communication” with Puerto Rico’s Education Secretary Julia Keleher for months since the storm, and in a blogpost published in January, Botelwrote, “We look forward to supporting students, educators and community members as they not only rebuild what’s been lost, but also improve, rethink and renew.”

In an interview with The Intercept, Keleher, Puerto Rico’s education secretary, said that a local law firm helped them craft the bill, two law firms from the mainland that had experience working with charter schools, and a team from the federal department of education. “We did have a series of technical assistance from the U.S education department,” she said. “They didn’t comment on the bill but they did help us think through it, and helped us define what we thought should be the final set of things to include.”

In November, Rosselló tweeted pictures of a meeting he and Keleher held with DeVos and her staff, noting they were “itemizing the areas that need the most attention in order to restore our education system.”

The Department of Education did not return The Intercept’s request for comment, but earlier this month DeVos told a group of reporters that she was very encouraged by Puerto Rico’s leadership for embracing school choice after the hurricane. She praised its approach for thoughtfully “meeting students needs … in a really concerted and individual way.”

In November, In the Public Interest, a research and policy organization focused on privatization and contracting, submitted a request under the Freedom of Information Act to the Department of Education requesting all communications between Jason Botel and Julia Keleher between July 1 and mid-November, and all emails sent or received by Botel during that period that mention charter schools or Puerto Rico. The Education Department confirmed receipt of the FOIA request a week later, and granted the group’s fee waiver request on January 12. Shar Habibi, the research and policy director at In The Public Interest, told The Intercept they’re still waiting to receive the records.

ONE CONTROVERSIAL ASPECT of Puerto Rico’s proposed legislation is its language to allow multiple charter school authorizers. Authorizers are entities – such as school districts, state commissions or nonprofits – that grant charter schools the right to exist. They are also then responsible for ensuring that the schools produce sufficient academic results and comply with relevant laws and regulations. If a school fails to do so, an authorizer is supposed to revoke the school’s charter and shut them down. The quality of charter school authorizing ranges widely throughout the United States.

Section 13.04 of the bill states that either Puerto Rico’s education department or a Puerto Rican university can authorize charter schools. This language has raised concerns that Puerto Rico will open the floodgates to many charter authorizers like in Michigan – a state that has earned a reputation for having notoriously lax charter oversight. The more there are, the easier it is for bad charters to shop around for an authorizer that will let them stay open.

Karega Rausch, the interim CEO of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, told The Intercept that their group does not have a hard-and-fast rule, or even guiding data, on the number of authorizers a jurisdiction should have – but they have observed that the overall quality of a charter sector can be “diluted” in places with too many authorizers. (Places like D.C., New Jersey and Massachusetts have just one charter authorizer, while states like Michigan, Ohio and Minnesota have many.)

Keleher, Puerto Rico’s education secretary, said she expects the legislation to be amended to allow for just one authorizer. “I think we’d want to stay away from having two based on what we understand as effective practice,” she said. The island’s senate is still holding public hearings on the bill.

Multiple news outlets this month reported that Puerto Rico aims to start with 14 charter schools, two in each of the island’s seven provinces.

Keleher told The Intercept that this has never been a formal plan, and her off-the-cuff remarks were interpreted by the media as something she never intended. “People were asking me how many we would have, so I was trying to answer the question and suggested maybe two per region,” she said. “The next thing I know people are asking me where I’m going to get these 14 [charter] applications. I just said that number because two per region seemed reasonable to manage, so I thought it was a number that could help calm people down.”

Keleher says the department has no plans to do what New Orleans did following Hurricane Katrina, and that it should develop a formula to limit the number of charter schools in Puerto Rico. But, she said, that formula needs to be flexible and should be handled by education department after the law is passed. “If the schools are super successful and more people want them, we should allow that up to a point,” she said.

The proposed legislation would also allow for the creation of virtual charters in Puerto Rico – a particularly contentious type of online school, evenamong school choice supporters. (DeVos is a big proponent of virtual charters, and a former investor in them herself.)

Keleher acknowledged the concerns around virtual charters, but says she remains optimistic about their potential. “I’ve taught in online classrooms,” she said. “It requires discipline and fidelity, and it may not be right for everyone.” She emphasized the importance of providing “options,” which she said could help bring new infusions of funds to the island. “If you look at what the president is prioritizing in his new budget, there’s a lot of emphasis on educational options,” she said.

In general Keleher advocates for an approach that leaves the charter law fairly vague (or as she calls, it “flexible”) so that her department can then craft regulations as it sees fit.

“We don’t want the law to be so tied to the reality of today,” she said. “We want to make it function as a lever to get the [education] department to behave in a way that we will produce strong results.” She pointed out that their last education law was incredibly detailed, “but very poorly implemented” and so this time they tried to go in the opposite direction. “We want to be sure that the system is responsive, rather than every time you want to adjust your program you have to amend your law,” she said.

The idea of creating an ambiguous law understandably has not eased much anxiety amongst Puerto Rico residents concerned about the pitfalls of school choice.

Even Ziebarth of the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools says it’s better to put more into the charter law than less. “We tend to try to get as much into the law as we can, and while some decisions make sense left to regulation, I think if they have a chance to pass a strong charter law that’s better,” he said. “I think we know enough about what the fundamentals should look like – particularly around flexibility, accountability and funding – that they can put that in statute now and not go back later and deal with it.”

Ziebarth adds that especially if Puerto Rico is considering going down the road of virtual charter schools, the island should include their six policy recommendations. “They should definitely not repeat the mistakes that others have made in that area,” he said.

Vouchers for private schools are included in the education reform bill, but they would likely not be implemented until after charter schools get started. Keleher told The 74 that given their budget situation, “it’s not something we can execute right now for obvious reasons.”

In 1994, back when Rosselló’s father, Pedro Rosselló, was governor, Puerto Rico’s Supreme Court struck down a proposal to establish a school voucher program. Puerto Rico’s leadership believes a series of court decisions issued over the past two decades, including from the U.S. Supreme Court, have now paved the legal path for them to move forward with school vouchers.

A recent trip taken by Rosselló has exacerbated concerns that he is not seriously grappling with the risks of his proposed education reforms.

Last week he visited an ASPIRA charter school in Philadelphia, and tweeted out after his visit that it represents an “excellent charter school model.”

But just two months ago Philadelphia voted to close two ASPIRA charter schools for their low academic quality, as well as a host of financial scandals and mismanagement issues. For years there have been concerns that ASPIRA was self-dealing with public funds, and the situation was difficult to track because each ASPIRA charter is structured as an independent nonprofit, despite all sharing the same board of trustees through their parent organization. “It’s very difficult to follow the financial trail when there are so many complicated, connected entities, and money flowing throughout them,” said an official working in the Philadelphia School District official in 2014. A former accounts payable coordinator at ASPIRA also filed a federal whistle blower lawsuit in 2014, alleging that the charter operator misappropriated more than $1 million in federal funds. The employee charged that ASPIRA made “repeated false representations” to the U.S. and state Departments of Education “in an effort to defraud the United States of taxpayer dollars, under the guise of providing quality education to some of the nation’s neediest students.” ASPIRA dismissed the charges as politically motivated. Then in 2016 news emerged that ASPIRA’s CEO had paid a top employee $350,000 in a sexual harassment settlement. Another former senior employee filed a lawsuit claiming she had been wrongfully terminated for helping her colleague file that sexual harassment complaint.

Díaz, the teachers union president, told the Intercept that Rosselló has been unresponsive to their concerns.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said Puerto Rico’s governor should be ashamed of himself. “He pretends that he’s a Democratic governor, but his playbook on schools is right out of Trump and DeVos,” she told The Intercept. “He won’t even tell the people of Puerto Rico what he’s doing as he secretly travels to an ASPIRA charter for a tour.” Weingarten says his behavior is “just baffling” and “one wonders who he is listening to.”

Keleher, for her part, emphasized that she’s trying to be very transparent and accessible with Puerto Ricans to discuss the reforms. This week her department organized a forum and last week she met with parents from each region of the island.

“The governor appointed me and I am fully accountable to the people,” she said. “You can like my decision or not but I think I’m responsible for showing you how I got my decision, and at the end of the day I have to take the hit.”

Still, the education secretary’s engagement with the public hasn’t always gone smoothly. Last week during a union-sponsored Q&A, Keleher abruptly stormed outwhen one teacher said the education secretary should return when she’s more prepared to answer their questions.

“Before this bill we were working together, we understood each other, and we agreed on many things,” Díaz told The Intercept. “But right now communications are stopped, I don’t think [the government] wants to understand our point of view.”

Indeed the question of whether charter schools in Puerto Rico would be unionized remains an open one. The proposed legislation says nothing about it. Most states do not require charter teachers to be in unions – indeed being union-free is seen by many charter advocates as a key characteristic of the model – but a few states, including Maryland and Hawaii, require it.

Keleher told The Intercept that they are staying intentionally “silent on the union issue” though she’s “not adamantly opposed if in the context of Puerto Rico” unionized charters seem like the best way to do it. She said, though, that if charter school operators want to come and oppose doing so with a unionized staff, she “would also understand and respect that” and she’s “very much in a let’s-see-what-makes-the-most-sense” position.

The last time Puerto Rico passed major education reforms was in the 1990s, and some elements of the controversial bill have attracted support from union members. Aside from the $1,500 pay hikes, Díaz says her union also likes the new procedures outlined around making school budgeting more transparent, and creating regional education offices.

“But the rest of the bill is unacceptable to us, and we cannot support it,” she said. For now the Asociación de Maestros de Puerto Rico will continue mobilizing against the charter and voucher proposals, and Díaz said they are also going to start more vocally championing for public schools that provide robust wraparound social services.

“These kids and their parents have been traumatized,” said Weingarten. “Let’s try to create some stability in Puerto Rico after this terrible storm.”

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