October 16, 2018 - Volume 38 Issue 10

On Aug. 10, the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico affirmed the constitutionality of sweeping education reforms, including charter schools and vouchers — a stinging defeat for the U.S. territory’s teachers’ unions.

While the Puerto Rican education system has been in desperate need of reform for quite some time, the devastation brought forth by Hurricane Maria on Sept. 20, 2017, rendered the education status quo completely untenable.

Puerto Rico enacted the Free School Selection Program (FSSP) to provide more opportunities — at a lower cost — to its students and their families in March of this year. However, the Puerto Rican American Federation of Teachers (AFT) affiliate filed a lawsuit which challenged the constitutionality of the program.

Puerto Rico’s free school selection program is comprehensive in its scope, yet simple in its premise. Faced with poor academic performance, declining enrollment, immense fiscal strain and a natural disaster, Puerto Rico decided it was time to give its students and families a choice in education.

The school program is an attempt at a reform strategy that will allow charter schools, implement a voucher program, greatly reduce the size and centralization of the Puerto Rican education bureaucracy, and close or consolidate schools that are failing to educate or are no longer fiscally viable.

The voucher program will be capped at three percent of students, and charter schools will be capped at no more than 10 percent of public schools.

Among the most interesting steps toward reform will be Puerto Rico’s attempt at using a student-centered funding formula in which funding will be tied to a student — not a district or a school — and will be calculated based on the student’s need. For example, greater levels of funding will be allocated for a student with special needs or for a student from a low-income household than a typical student. The funding will combine federal, state and local funds into a single source that will follow the student. Comprehensive in scope; simple in premise.

What lessons can West Virginia glean from the Puerto Rican experiment?

First, a couple of notes on similarities.

Like West Virginia, Puerto Rico’s public-school enrollment has seen substantial decline over the last several years. Enrollment dropped from 395,000 in 2015 to 365,000 in 2017 — with a projected enrollment of 292,000 in 2021. The losses are expected to be exacerbated long term by Hurricane Maria, yet it is part of the lasting trend of brain drain and exodus to greener pastures.

West Virginia has seen several years of declining enrollment as well. In 2009, there were 282,000 students enrolled in the West Virginia public school system. In the 2017-2018 school year, the number had dropped to 270,000 students.

The respective school systems are also centralized to an extreme level. The Puerto Rican school system was unified under one school system, but the recent reforms will decentralize the system into seven districts, each with its own rule-making authority.

What about West Virginia? In a 2012 audit of West Virginia’s education system, two sentences stand out: “We start with the fact that West Virginia has one of the most highly centralized and impermeable education systems in the country. No other state education system is so highly regulated in code and is constitutionally separate from the executive and legislative branches of government.”

Finally, despite poor academic outcomes under the status quo, teachers’ unions were also vehemently opposed to reforms in Puerto Rico just as they were in West Virginia.

But that’s where the similarities end.

Despite the threats, strikes and bloviations of the Puerto Rican teachers’ unions, Puerto Rico’s leaders understood that education reforms must be implemented, or the education system would continue to produce substandard results at inflated costs, dimming the futures of its students and crippling the finances of its government. Hurricane Maria simply transformed a slow-moving crisis into an immediacy.

Sometimes howls come from the winds of a hurricane, and sometimes howls come from powerful special interest groups determined to exert influence on behalf of its members to the detriment of the greater good or a child’s education.

In either case, there are two possible responses — bend and break in the face of the onslaught or stand strong and be willing the pick up the pieces to build a brighter future.

Puerto Rico chose one path and West Virginia the other. Now, the question remains: what will West Virginia do when — not if — the next storm hits?

Garrett BallengeeGarrett Ballengee is the executive director of the Cardinal Institute for West Virginia Policy, a nonprofit, free-market research organization in Charleston.

Source used by permission of the Charleston Gazette-Mail Editorial Page, Kelly Daily Mail Editorial Page Editor - kelly.merritt@wvgazettemail.com