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Puerto Rico to create charter schools, award vouchers

March 29, 2018

FILE - In this Oct. 13, 2017 file photo, children discuss their thoughts about Hurricane Maria at Ramon Marin Sola Elementary School in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico's governor signed an education reform bill Thursday, March 29, 2018, to create charter schools and vouchers and help turn around a system long known for its bureaucracy and failure to administer dwindling resources. (AP Photo/Carlos Giusti, File)

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Puerto Rico’s governor signed an education reform bill Thursday to create charter schools and vouchers and help turn around a department long known for its bureaucracy and struggles to administer dwindling resources.

The bill aims to decentralize the Department of Education and ensure that 70 percent of its budget reaches schools. In addition, it will provide teachers with their first raise in a decade starting next year.

Officials said the charter schools pilot program will be implemented in 10 percent of schools across the U.S. territory. The schools have not yet been identified, but those with low academic achievement will be a priority, said Education Secretary Julia Keleher.

Meanwhile, the private school vouchers will be limited to 3 percent of students starting in the 2019-2020 academic year.

“The reform is focused on providing students with better opportunities,” Keleher said.

Puerto Rico has 1,110 public schools and 319,000 students but has seen such numbers drop as people continue to flee to the U.S. mainland amid an 11-year recession.

More than 25,000 students have left since Hurricane Maria hit in September, and officials say they expect to lose 54,000 students overall in the next four years. Enrollment already dropped by 78,000 students over the past four years.

The bill faced more than 600 amendments as teachers, parents and legislators debated the proposed reform. Critics said it could lead to corruption and mismanagement of resources.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said in a phone interview that she was pleased with the bill’s amendments.

“We’re still disappointed that charters and vouchers will siphon off some of the much needed funds in Puerto Rico,” she said. “At the same time, the Senate put the brakes on this open-ended process and required standards for the charters so they could not be an open invitation for fraud, mismanagement and profit-making.”

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