Puerto Rico partnership

Top school choice group advising Puerto Rico on controversial efforts to expand charters and vouchers

English class teacher Joan Rodriguez talks to one of her 6th grade student at the Sotero Figueroa Elementary School in San Juan, Puerto Rico, November 6, 2017. The school reopened its doors without electricity to receive students 46 days after Hurricane Maria hit the island. (RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP/Getty Images)

EdChoice, a group that backs school vouchers, is preparing to help Puerto Rico officials expand school choice, or what critics there have called “privatization.”

Robert Enlow, the group’s president, told Chalkbeat the request came from Julia Keleher, Puerto Rico’s secretary of education, and that EdChoice would “provide some technical assistance.”

“They’re brand new at this and we’re trying to help them understand what’s been going on in other states, how states have run [choice programs], what the rules are, what the benefits and the challenges have been,” said Enlow, who spoke to Chalkbeat in Austin at SXSW EDU. “It’s really around policy advice and fiscal expertise.” (EdChoice is a funder of Chalkbeat.)

Keleher said in an interview that she had spoken with people from EdChoice in a call, but that they were just one of many groups, from a variety of perspectives, whose advise she has received. She said during the conversation EdChoice mentioned their statistical staff, and Keleher was interested in learning more, but said there’s no formal agreement.

Keleher also said she is looking at different states that have implemented school choice programs. “I don’t want to make mistakes that people have made before,” she said.

Keleher said she’s open to a variety of policy views. “I don’t think there’s one way to solve a complex problem,” she said.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, which rocked Puerto Rico schools and prompted thousands of residents to leave the island, Keleher and Governor Ricardo Rosselló have proposed closing 300 of its 1,100 traditional public schools. Rosselló also introduced a bill to Puerto Rico’s legislature that would allow for charter schools and vouchers.

This has sparked fierce pushback from Puerto Rico’s teachers union and prominent U.S. Senators, including Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

“The school privatization proposal in Puerto Rico would pull much-needed money away from public schools,” said Sanders at a recent event at the Albert Shanker Institute, which is affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers. “The proposal at hand would completely disrupt and destabilize the existing public school system already struggling to rebuild.”

The involvement of EdChoice, formerly known as the Friedman Foundation, is sure to stoke the controversy even further. Puerto Rico’s governor has also met with Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, and Jason Botel, a department official, has been in “close communication” with Keleher.

Enlow rejected criticism that choice advocates are taking advantage of a natural disaster. “If there’s a tragic situation … it’s about whether you’re doing it well and doing it with good intentions,” he said.

This story has been updated with comment Puerto Rico Secretary of Education Julia Keleher.

The New Chancellor

Tell us: What should the new chancellor, Richard Carranza, know about New York City schools?

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
A student at P.S. 69 Journey Prep in the Bronx paints a picture. The school uses a Reggio Emilia approach and is in the city's Showcase Schools program.

In a few short weeks, Richard Carranza will take over the nation’s largest school system as chancellor of New York City’s public schools.

Carranza, who has never before worked east of the Mississippi, will have to get up to speed quickly on a new city with unfamiliar challenges. The best people to guide him in this endeavor: New Yorkers who understand the city in its complexity.

So we want to hear from you: What does Carranza need to know about the city, its schools, and you to help him as he gets started April 2. Please fill out the survey below; we’ll collect your responses and share them with our readers and Carranza himself.

The deadline is March 23.

buses or bust?

Mayor Duggan says bus plan encourages cooperation. Detroit school board committee wants more details.

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Fourth-graders Kintan Surghani, left, and Rachel Anderson laugh out the school bus window at Mitchell Elementary School in Golden.

Detroit’s school superintendent is asking for more information about the mayor’s initiative to create a joint bus route for charter and district students after realizing the costs could be higher than the district anticipated.

District Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told a school board subcommittee Friday that he thought the original cost to the district was estimated to be around $25,000 total. Instead, he said it could cost the district roughly between $75,000 and a maximum of $125,000 for their five schools on the loop.

“I think there was a misunderstanding….” Vitti said. “I think this needs a deeper review…The understanding was that it would be $25,000 for all schools. Now, there are ongoing conversations about it being $15,000 to $25,000 for each individual school.”

The bus loop connecting charter and district schools was announced earlier this month by Mayor Mike Duggan as a way to draw kids back from the suburbs.

Duggan’s bus loop proposal is based on one that operates in Denver that would travel a circuit in certain neighborhoods, picking up students on designated street corners and dropping them off at both district and charter schools.

The bus routes — which Duggan said would be funded by philanthropy, the schools and the city — could even service afterschool programs that the schools on the bus route could work together to create.

In concept, the finance committee was not opposed to the idea. But despite two-thirds of the cost being covered and splitting the remaining third with charters, they were worried enough about the increased costs that they voted not to recommend approval of the agreement to the full board.  

Vitti said when he saw the draft plan, the higher price made him question whether the loop would be worth it.

“If it was $25,000, it would be an easier decision,” he said.

To better understand the costs and benefits and to ultimately decide, Vitti said he needs more data, which will take a few weeks. 

Alexis Wiley, Duggan’s chief of staff, said the district’s hesitation was a sign they were performing their due diligence before agreeing to the plan.

“I’m not at all deterred by this,” Wiley said. She said the district, charters, and city officials have met twice, and are “working in the same direction, so that we eliminate as many barriers as we can.”

Duggan told a crowd earlier this month at the State of the City address that the bus loop was an effort to grab the city’s children – some 32,500 – back from suburban schools.

Transportation is often cited as one of the reasons children leave the city’s schools and go to other districts, and charter leaders have said they support the bus loop because they believe it will make it easier for students to attend their schools.

But some board members had doubts that the bus loop would be enough to bring those kids back, and were concerned about giving charters an advantage in their competition against the district to increase enrollment.

“I don’t know if transportation would be why these parents send their kids outside of the district,” Angelique Peterson-Mayberry said. “If we could find out some of the reasons why, it would add to the validity” of implementing the bus loop.

Board member LaMar Lemmons echoed other members’ concerns on the impact of the transportation plan, and said many parents left the district because of the poor quality of schools under emergency management, not transportation.

“All those years in emergency management, that drove parents to seek alternatives, as well as charters,” he said. “I’m hesitant to form an unholy alliance with the charters for something like this.”