6 Months After Maria, Puerto Ricans Face a New Threat—Education Reform

6 Months After Maria, Puerto Ricans Face a New Threat—Education Reform

6 Months After Maria, Puerto Ricans Face a New Threat—Education Reform

Colonialism and disaster capitalism are dismantling Puerto Rico’s public-school system.  


Six months after Hurricane Maria, Puerto Ricans are understandably frustrated with their government officials. One might expect discontent to center around the head of the power company who oversaw months of blackouts or the governor who awarded hundreds of millions of dollars in private contracts with little or no oversight. But instead it is the secretary of the department of education, Philadelphia-native Julia Keleher, who has become the focus of people’s anger. In the past few weeks, Puerto Ricans have been calling for her resignation, making her the object of a viral hashtag campaign, #JuliaGoHome. On Monday, the school system was paralyzed by a strike as thousands of teachers protested the education-reform bill her office has spearheaded.

For observers from the 50 states, it might come as a surprise that Puerto Rico’s secretary of education hails from Philadelphia. Indeed, it is the first time a non–Puerto Rican has held the job since the colonial appointees in the period after the US took possession of the island in 1898. But in the four years leading up to her appointment, Keleher’s education consultancy firm, Keleher & Associates, had been awarded almost $1 million in contracts to “design and implement education reform initiatives” in Puerto Rico. The results of those efforts were never described to the public, but when Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares tapped Keleher for the position in January 2017, the selection was initially met with some guarded optimism. Some hoped that a non–Puerto Rican would be able to rise above local politics, end corruption, and lead the agency with professionalism and expertise.

From the beginning, many critics expressed concerns about her sizable salary, which at $250,000 is more than 10 times the average salary of a teacher in Puerto Rico. In an island beset by an unpayable debt and austerity measures, Keleher has managed to secure an income that is more than double that of her predecessors and over three times that of Rosselló, the governor that appointed her. It’s even 25 percent greater than that of Betsy DeVos, the secretary of the US Department of Education, and larger than that of 95 percent of education leaders around the world.

As secretary, her salary is capped by law, so in order for Keleher to receive this level of compensation, she was given additional contracts that established her as an adviser to her own agency. These contracts were facilitated through the Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority (AAFAF), the agency created in 2016 to manage the island’s fiscal crisis and implement austerity measures. As with other controversial appointments, such as that of the fiscal-board director Natalie Jaresko, the exorbitant salaries are rationalized as necessary to recruit the kind of talent needed to resolve the island’s financial crisis.

Those who supported Keleher’s confirmation responded to criticisms over her eye-popping salary by insisting that she had the kind of “world-class” skills and credentials that Puerto Rico’s education system sorely needed. She was hailed as a gifted technocrat and an expert in the use of data-driven, evidence-based practices and performance metrics. She was also described as someone who, precisely by virtue of not being from the island, would be immune the kind of partisan politics that corrupted the work of previous secretaries and the performance of the government as a whole. That appears not to be the case, with Puerto Rico’s Civil Rights Commission already investigating her office for ethics violations and political favoritism.

As it turns out, her policy and practice reforms have also been anything but transparent, and the “data” of her “data-driven” rationale has not been made widely available. One of her very first moves, for example, was to shutter more than 150 schools. But she never explained how she chose the schools that would be closed beyond a vague reference to “loss of students” due to migration.

Both this decision and its timing offer cause for concern. Puerto Rico, for starters, lacks an efficient public-transportation system, and the department of education operates very few school buses. In an island where the majority of children live in households below the poverty level, many parents lack the means to drive their children to a school that’s farther away. Critics question the need to consolidate schools and are weary of the impact this will have on children still dealing with the trauma of the storm. Not to mention the imminent loss of teaching jobs that closing schools implies.

With the assistance of DeVos’s office, Keleher’s department has now produced an education-reform bill designed to increase “school choice” through measures such as the creation of charter schools and school-voucher programs. In the Senate hearings leading up to the bill’s approval, the University of Puerto Rico’s dean of education testified against the widespread adoption of charter schools using research-based arguments. He has since been removed from his post. Monday’s protest sought to keep the bill from being passed in the Senate, but it sailed through anyway. A final version of the bill is expected to be approved by the governor in the coming days. The bill would accompany the closing of an additional 300 schools—over a third of the island’s public-school system. A separate law enacted last year allows for the fast-tracking of so-called “church schools,” which have been celebrated as a way to bring together religious freedom and school choice.

It is hard not to read this combination—the elimination of public schools and the creation of charters and voucher systems—as anything other than a large-scale privatization of the education system. For her part, Keleher denies that this is the main goal, and the final bill is vague around these issues: Charters may or may not be for-profit, vouchers may or may not be used at sectarian schools, and charters and private schools may or may not accept special-education students.

This last point, about students with special needs, is particularly crucial. Unlike in the 50 states, where about 13 percent of the student body qualifies for special-education services, in Puerto Rico 40 percent of the student population requires them. But research suggests that charter schools are less likely than traditional public schools to enroll and retain students with disabilities.

Keleher has been confronted with these and other questions pertaining to the changes she proposes at teacher forums and press conferences. Her responses have been inadequate and often rude: She tends to answer with curt, unsubstantiated, or sarcastic statements. She once simply got up and left a meeting because she was not happy with or prepared for teachers’ questions.

Her reaction to criticism of the recent $16.9 million contract given to the California-based Josephson Institute of Ethics to teach “values” in Puerto Rican schools is telling: After justifying the closing of the first 179 schools as a necessary $7 million cost-saving measure, she shrugged off the much-larger Josephson contract as representing less than 1 percent of the agency’s budget. But to many Puerto Ricans—when there is no funding for teaching materials, computers, and other educational necessities—the five-month contract seems like an extraordinary sum. When reporters asked her if Puerto Rican social workers employed by the school system were not already doing the job of imparting values, she replied that they, like most individuals in the department of education, lacked the necessary leadership and managerial skills. The Puerto Rican chapter of the National Association of Social Workers has suggested this indicates her lack of knowledge about the unique role and presence of social workers in the local system.

Later, when queried about why she had selected the Josephson Institute in the first place, she retorted “porque si,” or “just because,” later adding that the organization had evidence and data proving great results. This, however, is debatable: The institute has never carried out a program of this size, and the only evaluation that we could find, which was self-funded, suggested modest results at best. When asked how she even learned about the institute to begin with, Keleher claimed not to remember, but later it was revealed that a loyalist from Rosselló’s New Progressive Party (ironically from the department of ethics) had pushed for the contract. Past clients for this “values” program include the FBI, the Department of Defense, and the CIA, although the company acknowledges that the Puerto Rico program is the largest and most lucrative one they’ve ever had.

When pressured on these matters, Keleher and her supporters accuse her critics of prejudice—of not liking her because she’s a white American or of not understanding her because Spanish is not her first language. Her defenders stress that she is trying her best, and that it is as discriminatory to suggest that a person from Philadelphia could not run the department of education as it would be to suggest that someone from Puerto Rico could not do the same in one the 50 states. These claims gloss over the power differentials between Puerto Rico and the United States: It would be unthinkable for a Puerto Rican to be appointed to run a state’s department of education without perfect English fluency and knowledge of US history and politics.

Given her own admission of cultural incompetency, Keleher is perhaps unaware that the United States initially deployed US teachers to the island in the 1900s with the explicit intention of altering local language, culture, and historical memory to transform Puerto Rico into a more palatable “Porto Rico.” Local teachers were central to the resistance against the imposition of English-only education and were key to maintaining Puerto Rican history and cultural traditions within the curriculum.

Any appointment of a person from the mainland to a position of power on the island sends a message that Puerto Ricans suffer from native incompetence, a lack of preparedness, and faulty ethics, and that the solution to these deficiencies is having someone else—preferably someone from the United States—come in to fix the mess that Puerto Ricans have supposedly created for themselves. Lately, the message that Puerto Ricans are unable to govern themselves has been repeated frequently, from the imposition of the federal fiscal-control board to Keleher’s department recruitment of senior managers directly from the continental United States.

It’s important to see how Keleher and her policies fit within the landscape of post-Maria Puerto Rico. Although her nomination raised some eyebrows, it also paved the way for other less debated appointees, such as Walter Higgins III, recently chosen to lead the power authority down the road to privatization, and Brad Dean, who was named CEO of the island’s new Destination Marketing Organization, nonprofit private agency that does work previously done by government-sponsored tourism agencies. The creation of this agency speaks to the broad transfer of responsibilities and resources from the public to the private sector that is taking place following the storm.

It is clear that privatization and the influx of private capital are being imagined as the driving motors of Puerto Rico’s recovery. Even before Maria, the emphasis of the local government and the federally appointed fiscal board was on downsizing government agencies, luring foreign investors through tax incentives, privatizing public services—including essential ones like education, energy, and health care—and securing profits for bondholders and private investors. It is perhaps not surprising that Puerto Rico’s bonds have rallied since the storm.

This traditional, albeit accelerated, model of disaster capitalism where public funds are pillaged for the benefit of specific economic interests is reflected in Keleher’s actions: granting lucrative contracts to private US-based companies (while diminishing and dismissing available public institutions and resources in Puerto Rico), redirecting public funds to create private schools, and closing schools and firing teachers to make public funds available for her reform plan.

Julia Keleher is neither an exception nor an anomaly. What remains to be seen is if the calls of #JuliaGoHome will turn into a larger groundswell of discontent against the dismantling of Puerto Rico’s resources and the hardening of colonial forms of rule.

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