Puerto Rico's Public School Closures

Executive Summary

The Puerto Rico Department of Education has closed nearly half of the public schools in Puerto Rico since 2007. Puerto Rico is not alone; there is a broader trend of school closures in districts across the US, from Philadelphia to Oakland to Washington DC. But Puerto Rico shuttered an unprecedented 673 of its public schools (44%) in 11 years, far outpacing the rate of change and the number of closures in Chicago  (the US school district with the second largest number of school closures).1 The impact of Puerto Rico’s closures on students, families, and surrounding neighborhoods is profound, yet it has largely been regarded as collateral damage of a necessary restructuring.2

Schools serve beyond their educational purpose, as they contribute to the general well being in many ways

Schools in Puerto Rico carry particular meaning related to the archipelago’s environmental and historical context.3 Schools serve to increase resiliency, as essential sites for emergency response and recovery during and after hurricanes. They also serve as voting centers as well as provide information and treatment when there is an outbreak of dengue and other illnesses threatening public health. For a large number of families that live under the poverty level, it is through schools where thousands of children receive their only complete meals during the academic year. Schools are places of intergenerational relations, where children are connected with elders who often attended the same schools decades earlier and have unique knowledge of the history of their community. Moreover, various generations of schools are part of the archipelago’s cultural heritage due to their invaluable historic and architectural significance, with some schools housing remarkable works of art. As a result, the school closures have meant that many vulnerable and impoverished families have lost an essential source of support during the crisis, risking an important part of Puerto Rico’s material and immaterial wealth. 

Closures Process Lacks Transparency, Inclusion, and Accountability

Based on public records and conversations with community leaders from various urban and rural communities, the decision to close schools did not involve affected families, teachers, social workers, or other personnel. Closures were often announced through the press without any comprehensive explanation or criteria used to make such determinations. Moreover, the Puerto Rico Department of Education has not implemented any official reassignment process, leaving parents alone with the arduous task to figure out which schools nearby remain open and are accepting new students, many of which have special needs. The wave of school closures over the last decade weakened parent involvement and democratic governance, and limited access to education for children in some areas.

Closures Dismantle the Education System and Create New Barriers to Access 

In rural areas and some urban neighborhoods, the closures imply a longer commute distance, which increases transportation costs and is a formidable barrier for families without a vehicle or with work schedules that conflict with school start and end times. Some students have experienced multiple closures, having to change schools again just a year or two after their initial school was closed; which in turn may harm affected youth’s academic performance. Youth in the custody of the state have experienced additional burden, according to local service providers, because changing schools often means new caseworkers and potential loss of access to special service. In these and other ways, the closures have limited access to education for children. 

Widespread Neglect and Disrepair at Closed School Buildings

The current state of the closed school buildings varies, but most are still under government stewardship and have fallen into disrepair.  For this study, researchers randomly selected and conducted site visits to a sample of 144 presumedly closed school buildings, 25 of which were found to have avoided closure. The visits also found that of the 119 that were found to have closed, only a quarter of the schools (30 schools) have been re-used for some new purpose while the vast majority (82, or 69%) lay vacant with many in a regressive state of abandonment. The status for the remaining 7 (or 6%), on the other hand, was inconclusive. 

Of the 82 vacant schools visited, 59 (41%) of the buildings suffer from at least some degree of dilapidation, damage, contamination, or sanitary or safety risk. A detailed evaluation of the 82 vacant or abandoned schools revealed that the conditions for 48 (59%) were “optimal,” 18 (22%) were “good,” 6 (7%) “poor”, and 10 (12%) “bad”. Of those listed as “bad,” 2 were closed in 2018 and 4 in 2017, demonstrating the potential for rapid deterioration without attention. One can infer from these findings that a large majority of those schools closed by the Department of Education in recent years remain vacant or abandoned with some in a state of deterioration. 

The Great Majority of Closed School Buildings Today Remain Unused 

This study also reviewed 123 publically available contracts for sale or lease of school buildings from 2014-2019, which revealed that the government has sold only 10 school buildings: 9 to a private corporation and 1 to a private citizen, with an average selling price of $411,300. Regarding the 113 school buildings with leasing contracts, 90 (80%) were for $1, while 23 (20%) were presumably rented at market rate. Among the leases, 14 (12%) were to private, and/or for-profit schools (over ⅓ of these new schools are now Christian); and 4 (30%) were leased to educational non-profits offering programs like after-school tutoring, arts, and music classes, and daycares and Head Start programs. The plurality of leased schools, 55 (45%) are run by direct service non-profits and some function as community or health centers, offering a range of social service programs. Out of all contracts, 20 (16%) were expressly for private development in real estate, commercial development, or other purposes like “research.” Site visits to 50 of these contracted schools were carried out in order to measure the implementation rate of the contracts, revealing that 22 (44%) of sold, transferred, or leased schooled were actually in re-use according to contract plans, with at least 21 (42%) of the properties still vacant, and 7 (14%) inconclusive. When our research team visited 3 sites purchased with the intention to become shopping malls, none of these schools had been converted to said uses.

These findings infer that only about one-fifth of the 673 schools closed have been sold or leased.
This also contradicts the intentions of the Department of Education to generate income through school closings. Finally, though non-profit and community groups are theoretically allowed to compete side-by-side with for-profit and commercial entities for sale and lease contracts, the process to access a government contract can be bureaucratic and challenging for smaller organizations and groups, as well as those with fewer resources. As a result, many of these groups have been excluded from said processes.

School Closures May Contribute to the Privatization of the Education System

By many accounts, Puerto Rico’s public schools were not excelling before the closures due to the history of disinvestment. Educators and parents alike fear that one of the hidden reasons for the closures is to facilitate a transition to a system that privatizes education, much like what has transpired in mainland US cities with high rates of school closures.4  In 2018, just six months after the hurricanes, former Governor Rosello adopted a law allowing for charters as well as vouchers for private schools.5 Some local leaders suspect that the school closures accomplish a consolidation of students into larger schools that will be more profitable for future private and or charter school companies. These concerns are warranted. Of the 113 school buildings that were leased from 2014-2019, 14 are now private and/or for-profit schools, and over one-third of these new schools (5) are now Christian academies. When schools lose public status and are contracted to private and religious-affiliated institutions, they can implement selective enrollment and further exacerbate educational inequities throughout Puerto Rico. 

Privatization reform, which is justified by austerity demands and debt obligations, is generally described as bringing market principles to a bureaucratic and inflexible system.6 But the reform measures often ignore the structural disadvantages of an unequal society, these market solutions put into place can deepen inequality and poverty. In addition, privatization may also lead to corruption7 (as it has in Puerto Rico), prioritize individuals and for- and non-profit organizations that advance their own interests, and deprive students and families of a robust and dignified educational experience.            

Closing Schools Causes Incalculable Harm and Is not a Debt-Reducing Solution

The way in which the Department of Education has closed schools raises wide-reaching concerns, including those related to the Puerto Rican constitution’s guarantee of “a system of free and wholly non-sectarian public education.”8 These rights and protections are in tension with a trend across the US of private sector interest in and acquisition of local and state government assets. The value of buildings and land used for educational purposes is $2.7 trillion and constitutes the second-largest asset for local governments across the United States (following highways and streets).9 Given privatization trends and the massive public school closures within Puerto Rico, measures are needed to keep those assets in the public sphere, ensuring they serve public needs and remain accountable to the people. These closed school buildings constitute a valuable resource with no comparison, and thus should be re-opened through government-supported community-based planning processes.  

Assuming the exchange value of those buildings and lands historically destined for educative purposes with the government’s interest to liquidate part of these assets, one would be alarmed at how only 10 schools have been sold in the past years for only $4.1 million and 113 rented; 23 for $191,562 and 90 for the symbolic amount of $1. If anything, these numbers evidence that meager income generated from the closing and re-use of schools represents only a tiny part of the government’s multi-billion-dollar debt. Ultimately, school closures produce few savings while they generate substantial and wide-reaching costs and harm to students, families, neighborhoods, and the archipelago as a whole.

With the necessary political will, Puerto Rico could become a model in how to navigate economic restructuring so that it serves the general population and public institutions. This approach to public schools, both those that remain open and those that have closed, could allow Puerto Rico to address multiple public challenges it currently faces: extreme economic inequality and persistent poverty, climate change recovery and resilience, population loss, and a struggling education system.

Recommendations

  1. The Puerto Rico Government and the Department of Education should 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, the Department of Education should guarantee that closures of public schools should be determined through a decision-making process that provides meaningful opportunities for robust participation from students, families, surrounding communities, and local government, and includes a comprehensive land use planning centering long-term economic, social, and environmental sustainability. 
  3. Require a reuse plan for all closed schools that includes outreach campaign, coordination, and provision of social services for families harmed by closures, clawback clauses when sales, transfers, or leases involve third parties, post-closing maintenance plans, and technical assistance for interested public, community, and nonprofit entities.
  4. Commission an independent audit of the Department of Education and related agencies’ activities regarding closures, consolidations, and contracts for re-use, in order to identify true savings or losses resulting from school closures. 
  5. The Puerto Rico Government should provide public access to accurate, timely, relevant data on school closures, leases and sales, financial records, and decision-making processes. 
  6. Decisions regarding the closing of schools should be in the exclusive control of Commonwealth and local communities, prohibiting involvement from the Federal Oversight and Management Board, thus assuring the best interests of potentially affected communities and local governments. 
  7. The Department of Education should conduct a thorough assessment of the current physical condition of all public schools (open and closed) in Puerto Rico, which would allow the Department of Education to better assess its assets and provide better rehabilitation, relocation, and re-use plans. 
  • 1. Linda Lutton et al., “A Generation of School Closings,” WBEZ (December 3, 2018), https://interactive.wbez.org/generation-school-closings/.
  • 2. Andrew Ujifusa, “Tensions Rise Over Path Ahead for Puerto Rico’s School System,” Education Week 37, no. 20 (February 14, 2018): 1, 14, 15.
  • 3. The term “archipelago” is used to refer to Puerto Rico, which includes the island municipalities of Vieques and Culebra.
  • 4. Rachel Cohen and The American Prospect, “The Devastating Impact of School Closures on Students and Communities,” AlterNet, April 18, 2016, https://www.alternet.org/2016/04/devastating-impact-school-closures-stud....
  • 5. Andrew Ujifasa, “Puerto Rico Governor Signs Bill to Expand Choice and Revamp Public Schools,” EdWeek, (March 21, 2018),http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/campaign-k-12/2018/03/puerto_rico_lawmake....
  • 6. ichael Engel, The Struggle for Control of Public Education: Market Ideology vs. Democratic Values (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2000), 6.
  • 7. Janelle Scott, “Managers of Choice: Race, Gender, and the Philosophies of the New Urban School Leadership,” en School Choice Policies and Outcomes: Empirical and Philosophical Perspective, ed. Walter Feinberg and Christopher Lubienski (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2008), 161.
  • 8. Constitution of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, Article II, Section 5, 1952.
  • 9. Highways and streets value constitutes 32% of the total value of state and local government fixed assets—valued at $3.7 trillion. See Bureau of Economic Analysis at https://apps.bea.gov/iTable/iTable.cfm?ReqID=10&step=2.