Puerto Rico's Public School Closures

Conclusion and Recommendations

Conclusion and Recommendations 

Conclusion

Public schools, particularly in Puerto Rico, are bedrocks for the communities they serve. They provide a place for intergenerational learning, access to food, social networks, a place for voting, shelter during extreme weather, and other essential functions that go beyond being solely a place of education for students. Public education itself also creates public benefits, which are enjoyed by many more people than the person directly receiving the education.83 But when education is thought of as a market commodity, it is treated as an individual private product detached from these essential benefits. Additionally, when slots in charter schools are limited and private schools have selective enrollment, families are put in competition with one another, despite the fact that education is a constitutional right.

Consecutive waves of mass school closures in Puerto Rico have proven detrimental for students, parents, and whole communities. The alleged justifications and benefits of school closures has also been misleading and misinformed, given the lack of evidence that it has improved education or public finances. However, in the rare case that a school closure is needed or inevitable, there ought to be deep improvements to decision-making, communication, and collaborative planning to assure that risks and negative impacts to surrounding communities are understood and mitigated. 

According to John B. King, former US secretary of education, the Puerto Rico educational system “has long suffered from a lack of investment, and the consequences of that lack of investment are lack of opportunity for students.” In this sense, the school closures and austerity policies can be seen as a continuation of, not a break from, the past. 

Educational policy and the planned reuse of closed schools must be an integral part of responding to population loss, public debt, and a struggling education system. Solutions must begin with a framework that understands community schools as essential public assets that are anchors for community-driven local and regional equitable development. Building high-quality community-controlled schools should be placed at the center of long-term strategies to reduce poverty and increase resilience. Ultimately, investing in public schools must be seen as a way to reverse economic distress, bring families back to the archipelago, and support the development of young people into future leaders and professionals committed to advancing grounded solutions that can contribute to the prosperity of their communities. 

The overall reduction in student populations can generate creative approaches, including creating public Montessori schools. For example, there are now 45 public Montessori schools serving 14,000 students in Puerto Rico, the largest and fastest growing public Montessori project in the US.84 Although 14 public Montessori schools were listed to be closed by the DE, community advocacy by students and families managed to prevent every single planned closure. The “Puerto Rico Model,” as it’s become known, is a unique combination of the public access and governance of a public school with the program design and curriculum based on the Montessori approach. 

Education is not the only area where community members are organizing and advancing bold visions that will transform public systems to resolve major problems. Puerto Rican leaders have developed plans to convert the territory’s energy system to 100 percent renewable,85 resolve widespread property title issues without displacing residents,86 and innovate across sectors.87 Rising to face large-scale challenges does not require that communities become collateral damage, and transformative solutions do not have to mean a transition away from the public sphere and a ceding of power to private interests.

The impact of the school closures is profoundly concerning, but the story is not over. Puerto Rico’s struggles are an extreme version of challenges faced across the US and much of the world, with conditions in Puerto Rico mirroring many of the experiences of school districts in the mainland US. Like Puerto Rico, these mainland districts are mostly lower-income communities of color, racialized, and have had market-based reform imposed on them. The solutions and outcomes on the archipelago will provide lessons for the entire US. 

Recommendations

This research points to several actions that should be prioritized by the Commonwealth and the DE: 

  1. Cease closures and transfers of public schools until clear decision-making criteria and a public process are established and publicly disclosed to ensure an inclusive, responsive, and transparent process for planning and implementing closures.
  2. In the future, closures of public schools should be determined through a process with: 
    1. criteria that account for the full range of social, economic, health, cultural, and other benefits to communities reflected in the information presented in this report; scholarly research; and multiple covenants related to international and human rights law, including the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination and the Convention on the Rights of the Child;
    2. a decision-making process that provides meaningful opportunities for participation and accountable implementation of public decisions for students, families, surrounding communities, and local government;
    3. public access to timely, relevant information and data needed to make informed decisions related to the decision-making criteria and potential effects on surrounding communities; 
    4. adherence to Puerto Rico’s constitutional obligation for the central government to provide primary and secondary education to all Puerto Rican residents. In this regard, the process and decisions should reflect meaningful democratic participation and public debate; and 
    5. a comprehensive land use plan centering long-term economic, social, and environmental sustainability, compatible with the Puerto Rico Land Use Plan. 
  3. Require a reuse plan for all closed schools, to be developed through a process involving local government and robust parent and community participation. This should include: 
    1. a funded and deliberate outreach campaign;
    2. guarantees of public access to relevant information; 
    3. coordination and provision of social services for families harmed by closures; 
    4. preferences for public and community uses; 
    5. claw back clauses in case of breach of contract;
    6. postclosing maintenance plans; and 
    7. technical assistance for interested public, community, and nonprofit entities.
  4. Commission an independent audit of the DE and related agencies’ activities regarding closures, consolidations, and contracts for reuse, in order to identify true savings or losses resulting from school closures. This audit should include debts related to the provision of educational services and educational infrastructure, including the Department of Energy (DOE) and the Public Buildings Authority, and include, but not be limited to, Puerto Rico’s public primary and secondary school system. Additionally, the costs of the cascading effects of school closures must be considered, including costs associated with community blight and decreased local economic development
  5. Provide public access to accurate, timely, relevant data on school closures, leases and sales, financial records, and decision-making processes. Various gaps in available data limited this study, from a lack of official lists of school closures by year, to population decline by region surrounding a school, to zoning changes surrounding schools. These and other datasets are essential to effective planning and policy. Additionally, the role of consultant firms advising the government, the Financial Oversight and Management Board, and the DOE has become an important area for public concern. Information about private firms and contractors brought in to conduct financial feasibility studies, cost benefit analysis, restructuring plans for the public education system, and other related services should be made readily available. This includes contracts with those entities and any and all deliverables related to those contracts and consultations.
  6. Decisions regarding the closing of schools should be off-limits to the Financial Oversight and Management Board. Though the board and Commonwealth often point fingers at each other about who is to blame for school closings,88 decision-making on closures should be in the exclusive control of the Commonwealth and local communities served by those schools.
  7. Conduct a thorough assessment of the current physical condition of all public schools (closed or not) in Puerto Rico, allowing the DE to better inventory its assets and provide for more informed rehabilitation, relocation, and reuse plans for closed schools. These plans should assess and consider.

Areas for Further Inquiry

Several areas merit further analysis to better understand the impact of, and effective responses to, school closures in Puerto Rico: 

  • Research the potential correlation between closing schools and displacement of low- and middle-income rural and urban populations and communities.
  • Analyze Puerto Rico’s racial segregation and inequality and evaluate its possible relationship with school closings. 
  • Conduct community-based research to identify specific subpopulations of students and community members to understand their particular experiences with the school closures and appropriate changes to policy and practice. For example, the researchers found that youth in custody of the state have been uniquely affected by school closures. This is one type of student population that is uniquely situated within the education system in Puerto Rico.
  • Create guidelines, programs, and/or policies for future decision-making before, during, and after closures. 
  • Carry out a quantitative analysis to investigate patterns between the closed schools and receptor school. This research should evaluate the correlation between closures and the ostensible rationale of population loss and revenue shortfall. This is currently constrained due to lack of available data.
  • Closely evaluate Puerto Rico’s model for financing its public education within the current economic and political context, comparing it with models implemented in other jurisdictions. This inquiry should identify alternatives for the financing and investment in the development of the public education system.
  • Design equitable strategies for struggling schools and communities responding to decreased student populations and economic downturns. 
  • Identify and support pilot projects and models showing best practices for community-led opposition to school closures and community-oriented reuse of public school buildings.