Puerto Rico's Public School Closures

Schools Are a Window into Broader Issues

Schools Are a Window into Broader Issues

THE OVERARCHING REASONS for closing the schools commonly cited by the DE, governor, and others have been the territory’s falling population and public debt. Others, including parents and advocates interviewed for this research, see the closures as part of shifting resources to charter and private schools. In practice, local leaders and parents have never seen any formal criteria or transparent process for deciding which schools to close.

Migration of Families

While significant numbers of Puerto Rican families have moved away over the last decade or more, it is unclear that the closed schools were limited to those that were no longer needed. The number of students in the public schools had already been falling by about 20,000 per year for ten years, to a total of just over 346,000 students, when Hurricanes Irma and Maria hit in 2017.59 This is reflective of an ongoing loss in the total population on the territory, which has decreased by at least 14% since 2010.60 The damage caused by the 2017 hurricanes only intensified the outward migration. The Puerto Rico DE closed at least 150 schools between 2010 and 2015, 165 in 2017, and another 263 in 2018.61 While the population is falling, it is unclear it necessitated the accelerated and massive closing of 673 schools since 2007.

Furthermore, population decline is not an inevitable phenomenon in Puerto Rico. In fact, population decline in the territory is deeply tied to, and a consequence of, policy of the US federal government and the Puerto Rico Commonwealth.62 Simply put, population decline is a symptom of a policy problem—not the problem itself. Creating policy that is designed for population decline—like closing schools—can only deepen the negative consequences of the decline. Ultimately, community leaders and parents doubt the consolidation of schools has resulted in better quality schools, and parents, students, and teachers are left scrambling to readjust.

Public Debt

Puerto Rico’s debt stands at approximately $74 billion. This figure has been held up to reinforce the mainstream messaging that frames Puerto Rico’s fiscal situation as a “crisis” and inspires popular support for stabilizing and decreasing its debt load. The large amount of debt becomes the rationale for antidemocratic restructuring processes and escalating austerity, which are said to provide “solutions” to “unsus-a tainable debts.” As was the case of Detroit, a US city whose large public debt has also been used repeatedly to justify “debt-reducing” policies, the amount of debt being publicized is often an inaccurate representation of the obligations owed. Ultimately, this contributes to the perception that the root of the debt problem is government mismanagement, corruption, and incompetence. 

In the case of Puerto Rico, calculating the debt is complicated because municipalities—similar to US local governments—generate their own revenue and expenses, can issue their own bonds, and have different degrees of fiscal stability. This is not to say that the debt across the Commonwealth government, its public corporations, and its local governments is sustainable. However, Puerto Rico’s current debt situation should not be considered an isolated problem.

To understand Puerto Rico’s debt, it is necessary to account for the Commonwealth’s relationship to the mainland US and its historical context. Its status as a colonial entity and its treatment as such by financial entities with ties to the federal government throughout the twentieth century have given top priority to financial interests, often over the needs and well-being of Puerto Ricans.63 Various measures to subsidize corporate investments, like the triple tax exemption bond, created favorable conditions for manufacturing, pharmaceutical, and other industries from the mainland without similar support or investment in the welfare of, and opportunity for, Puerto Ricans.64

As these deals and exemptions were phased out, much of these industries left Puerto Rico. The lack of direct investment in the domestic population persisted, and the Commonwealth’s government was forced to take on higher levels of debt to support vital public infrastructure and safety net programs. Wall Street, sensing an opportunity, campaigned hard for Puerto Rico to take on ever higher levels of debt.65 When this debt reached a level of instability, the US federal government enacted the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act, or PROMESA, in 2016, which instituted the Financial Oversight and Management Board to manage the debt restructuring. The process of drafting PROMESA and selecting board members was heavily influenced by lobbying to make sure investors were prioritized in the process. As austerity was imposed on Puerto Rico to ensure that public funds were available to make payments to investors, Wall Street released optimistic projections about Puerto Rico’s fiscal health, even as a group of twenty-six economists warned of the long-term harm such measures would have on Puerto Rico’s macroeconomic growth.66 Tellingly, the US federal government has ensured that its economic fate is disentangled from the Commonwealth through measures like maintaining separate unemployment rates, not tallying Puerto Rico’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), and treating the archipelago as a foreign entity in the tax code.67 Studying the details of Puerto Rico’s political position relative to the US in tandem with its commercial and nonprofit productivity reveals multiple possible intervention strategies that run counter to current dominant strategies.68

Austerity measures taken in recent years have exacted a toll on all Puerto Ricans, negatively impacting the provision of essential public services in health care, education, and social security. They have included tax increases, salary freezes, eliminating and eroding collective bargaining agreements, and drastic reductions in public employment. This has accelerated emigration, reduced tax revenues, and increased unemployment—all of which deepen the economic crisis. However, this does demonstrate that Puerto Rico has already taken the measures that the Financial Oversight and Management Board and other consultants have proposed at this moment. These measures have not improved the lived realities of its residents. 

This has meant that the Puerto Rican government’s obligations to its people are being made secondary to its obligations on the debt flowing to investors. Financial decisions like these determine residents’ access to clean drinking water, health services, clean classrooms and cafeterias, libraries and internet service, and many more aspects of daily life. Funding for education is among the most significant government expenses, and when school funding is made subject to austerity measures, it opens the door for the system to be privatized.

As mentioned in the section Sales and Leasing of Closed Schools, only 10 (1%) of closed schools have been sold, according to publicly available contracts for schools from 2014 to 2019. The total sales revenue from 2014 to 2019 is $4.1 million, with an additional $191,562 in leases at market rate. Out of the 123 contracts from 2014 to 2019, 80% are for leases with the symbolic amount of $1, evidence of the limited revenue source that reused schools offer. It is clear that revenue from sales or leases of reused schools do not make a significant dent in Puerto Rico’s multibillion dollar debt. 

By April 2018, the official statements by the Commonwealth government about the fiscal rationale for school closures changed, as it acknowledged that savings were minimal. Nevertheless, the government continued to support the closing of schools as a matter of efficiency.69 In 2019, the unelected Financial Oversight and Management Board, tasked with managing the territory’s debt crisis, announced it would not execute the plan to close an additional 300 schools in the coming year because, in fact, the closures had not achieved the expected cost savings.70 Our research into contracts has demonstrated a significant number of for-profit firms participating in school sales, many of which have holdings in other areas of real estate. Former secretary of education Julia Keleher is also currently facing federal charges in part for the granting of school property to a private developer for $1 in exchange for an apartment in a high-cost condominium.71

A handful of schools were recipients of public funding for renovations, infrastructure improvements, and new recreation facilities shortly before their closing. Some abandoned schools still have signs on them announcing public investment or its adoption by a particular agency. In said cases, austerity measures have proven to lead to the loss of previous investments. Similarly, one audit of 84 closed schools in the Humacao region demonstrated that electric and water connections had not been cut, even after a year, resulting in $167,747 in losses, between August 2017 and September 2018.72

School closures produce few savings and are an insignificant source of revenue for Puerto Rico. While they do not provide significant revenue, school closures do generate substantial and cascading costs that disadvantage the health, democratic participation, and well-being of students, families, neighborhoods, and the archipelago as a whole.

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. One community leader stated plainly, “everyone who can afford it sends their kids to private schools.” 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.73 In 2018, just six months after the hurricanes, former Governor Roselló adopted a law allowing for charters as well as vouchers for private schools.74 The 2018 Educational Reform Act, which created a school voucher system so that vouchers can be used for intradistrict public school choice or private schools, allowed for the creation of charter schools and included a salary increase for teachers.75 Months later, Frank Brogan, US Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education, praised Puerto Rico for paving the way for charter schools.76 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 charter school companies.

These concerns are warranted. Of the 113 school buildings that were leased from 2014 to 2019, 14 are now private or for-profit schools, and over onethird of these new schools (five) are now Christian academies. For example, José Andino y Amezquita school in Bayamón was closed at the end of the 2017 school year. In December 2017, it was leased to High Achievement Christian School, a for-profit limited liability company, for $1 per month to run a Christian school (prekindergarten through high school) on the site. This conversion, along with the other 13 formerly public now private schools, evidence the privatization of the public education system. Schools are contracted to other entities, including Christian or religious institutions, to operate and run private schools. Because these new schools are not public, they can have selective enrollment and further exacerbate educational inequities and social inequalities in Puerto Rico. 

School privatization—also referred to as “market-based education reform”—is often depicted as the optimal solution for improving “struggling” school districts as well as a civil rights action, providing people of color and marginalized communities access to the promises of the free market.77 As the ground is laid for the privatization of the school system in Puerto Rico, with austerity and debt obligations used as pretext, it is important to understand the ways in which market-based reform is not as promising as many prominent claims make it out to be.

Privatization reform is generally described as bringing market principles to a bureaucratic and inflexible system.78 The argument is that free choice is necessary to bring competition and efficiency to education where the public sector has allowed schools to fail because of unresponsive operations and overreaching teachers’ unions. However, this framing ignores the histories and current realities of race- and class-based structural disadvantages. Instead of confronting these structural issues and putting resources into uprooting them, the market reform proposal ignores these realities in its enthusiasm for free market solutions. This approach further entrenches inequities as it intensively favors those who have access to greater financial resources. Because these dynamics are ignored, schools that are struggling because of structural reasons will be thought of as failing to compete in the market. Much like with the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act, high-performing schools will be rewarded through additional funding (supposedly to encourage competition), and the structurally disadvantaged schools will fall further behind. This is especially the case as curriculums are stripped to focus on test scores, and extracurricular programs are eliminated to reduce costs.79

The Luis T. Baliñas school in Aguas Buenas, shortly after its closing.

While market-based reform is presented as beneficial to students in “failing” public systems, many of the organizations that operate charter schools are for-profit companies, which means they need to find a way to have a profitable revenue stream. As many of these schools receive funding based on standardized test performance, a lot of schools will find ways to exclude students that they think may drag test scores down, as opposed to dedicating resources to helping all children reach their maximum potential and flourish academically.80 Many of the people who run the organizations that operate charters are politically connected and win contracts based on those connections.81 Clear evidence of this practice exists in Puerto Rico with another set of corruption charges against former secretary of education Julia Keleher; in 2019, she was arrested for her role in a fraud and money laundering scheme where she inappropriately funneled contracts to people with whom she had personal connections.82 In these ways, the private for-profit interests benefit financially on the backs of students who deserve a robust and fair educational experience.

After closing, the Luis T. Baliñas school of Aguas Buenas, now demolished, has been sold to private developers.

  • 60. US Census Bureau, “Puerto Rico Quick Facts” (July 1, 2018), https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/PR/PST045218.
  • 61. Open Data Puerto Rico Government Portal, “Comprehensive Directories of Public Schools 2007 and 2019.”
  • 62. Edgardo Meléndez, Sponsored Migration: The State and Puerto Rican Postwar Migration to the United States, (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2017), accessed March 19, 2020. doi:10.2307/j.ctv3znx2t.
  • 63. Joaquín Villanueva, Martín Cobián, and Félix Rodríguez, “San Juan, the Fragile City: Finance Capital, Class, and the Making of Puerto Rico’s Economic Crisis,” Antipode 50, no. 5 (2018): 1415–1437.
  • 64. For more on PuertoRico’sdebt crisis, see SergioM. Marxuach, Analysis of PuertoRico’sCurrent Economic and Fiscal Situation (San Juan: Centerfor NewEconomy, 2015), accessed March 19, 2020, https://www.energy.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/files/serve?File_id=D40CD....
  • 65. Jasmine Gomez, Blackout in Puerto Rico: How 120 Years of Corporate Dominance & Political Inequality Stifle Self-Determination Today (Austin, TX: Free Speech for the People and United for a Fair Economy, 2018), 20, accessed May 15, 2019, https://d3n8a8pro7vhmx.cloudfront.net/ufe/pages/4096/attachments/original/ 1532544868/Blackout_in_Puerto_Rico_July_2018.pdf.
  • 66. Daron Acemoglu, Alan A. Aja, Robert Blecker, José Caraballo Cueto, Hector Cordero-Guzman, William “Sandy” Darity, Jr., Alberto Dávila, Zadia M. Feliciano, José M. Fernández, Richard Freeman et al., “A Fiscal Plan for Puerto Rico Recovery,” accessed July 26, 2019, http://recovery4pr.org/.
  • 67. Jay Zagorsky, “Why Puerto Rico ‘Doesn’t Count’ to the US Government,” The Conversation (October 25, 2017), http://theconversation.com/why-puertorico-doesnt-count-to-the-us-governm....
  • 68. For example, see Puerto Rico Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority, and the Government of Puerto Rico, Revised Fiscal Plan for Puerto Rico: As Submitted to the Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico (Government of Puerto Rico, 2019); Anne O. Krueger, Ranjit Teja, and Andrew Wolfe, Puerto Rico: A Way Forward (Gubernamental de Fomento para Puerto Rico, June 29, 2015); Marc Joffe and Jesse Martinez, Origins of the Puerto Rico Fiscal Crisis (Mercatus Center, George Mason University, April 2016).
  • 69. “Gobernador Asegura Cierre de Escuelas No Representarán un Ahorro Significativo,” Metro (April 6, 2018), https://www.metro.pr/pr/noticias/2018/04/06/gobernador-asegura-cierre-es...
  • 70. David Cordero Mercado, “La Junta Enmendará el Plan Fiscal Recién Certificado para No Incluir Cierre de Escuelas,” El Nuevo Día (May 9, 2019), https://www.elnuevodia.com/noticias/locales/nota/lajuntaenmendaraelplanf....
  • 71. “El Arresto a Keleher es por Ceder Terreno de una Escuela por un Apartamento,” Metro (January 15, 2020), https://www.metro.pr/pr/noticias/2020/01/15/arresto-keleher-ceder-terren....
  • 72. Oficina del Contralor, “Auditoría DA-19-29,” (June 13, 2019), https://media.noticel.com/o2comnoti-media-us-east-1/document_dev/2019/06....
  • 73. 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....
  • 74. Andrew Ujifusa, “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....
  • 75. Michael Shaw, “What Puerto Rico’s New Education Reform Bill Says about School Choice,” Engage by EdChoice (May 16, 2018), https://www.edchoice.org/engage/what-puerto-ricos-new-education-reform-b....
  • 76. Andrew Ujifusa, “Top DeVos Deputy: Puerto Rico Will Be a ‘Beacon ’of School Choice,” EdWeek (October 31, 2018), http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/campaign-k-12/2018/10/school-choice-inpue....
  • 77. Janelle Scott, “Managers of Choice: Race, Gender, and the Philosophies of the New Urban School Leadership,” in School Choice Policies and Outcomes: Empirical and Philosophical Perspective, ed. Walter Feinberg and Christopher Lubienski (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2008), 168.
  • 78. Michael Engel, The Struggle for Control of Public Education: Market Ideology vs. Democratic Values (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2000), 6.
  • 79. Pauline Lipman, “Making the Global City, Making Inequality: The Political Economy and Cultural Politics of Chicago School Policy,” American Educational Research Journal 39, no. 2 (2002): 379-419.
  • 80. Christopher H. Tienken and Yong Zhao, “How Common Standards and Standardized Testing Widen the Opportunity Gap,” in Closing the Opportunity Gap: What America Must Do to Give Every Child an Even Chance, ed. Prudence L. Carter and Kevin G. Welner (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2013), 117.
  • 81. Janelle Scott, “Managers of Choice: Race, Gender, and the Philosophies of the New Urban School Leadership,” in School Choice Policies and Outcomes: Empirical and Philosophical Perspective, ed. Walter Feinberg and Christopher Lubienski (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2008), 161.