Poison Pills and Miracle Cures in Education

The many in Puerto Rico’s working class will do most anything to avoid putting their children in the public education system. The reputation earned in the community at large and the media is of a bloated, broken bureaucracy that suffers a drop out rate by 7th grade of over 40% and results in systematic failure to prepare its students.  If this sounds unrealistic take the real life cases of Sonia, 37 and Mildred, 44. These are two of the many stories I hear. Some of the stories come from friends, members of my community and from people I casually start talking to in public settings.

Sonia has worked her entire life primarily as a housekeeper, earning under $17,000 a year while raising 3 children. Sonia lives in one of our recently dubbed metro area "special communities" she had a public elementary school just a couple of blocks away. When her eldest son was close to becoming another statistic, she was able to enroll him in a National Guard program designed to help at risk youth. As her second child finished middle school Sonia grew skeptical of the main public school system and enrolled her daughter in a vocational school. For her third child, Sonia was a mom with a plan. With great sacrifice her third child was enrolled in an inner city catholic school. Among the Sonia’s complaints were racism in the schools that victimized her children and resulted in lack of commitment to her children’s progress.

Lets change the setting to a gated working class community.  Mildred’s story is similar, public school is a working parent’s last choice. Eight years ago, Mildred’s husband lost his job at a hotel, leaving the family with only her wages as a secretary. In this period of uncertainty and financial duress 3 of her children were still in school.The parents fretted over the decision but keeping up with the mortgage and rising utility bills, they opted to pull out of the private catholic school her two boys who seemed to be underperforming,  leaving only the youngest in the catholic school elementary.  The eldest of these was enrolled in a vocational school and the younger brother in a public elementary school just a mile away.  As soon as it was practical, the younger brother was enrolled in the same vocational school.

Both stories illustrate that to many parents relying on Puerto Rico’s public school system is a  choice they are forced to consider and try to avoid making if it is at all possible.  Oakland, New York City, St. Louis, have all had failing school district, there like here, right now, against this backdrop, the timing seems right for the institution of charter schools. This new educational offer would be available only in places where the community came together in a grassroots movement that activated parents, teacher and administrators and rallied them around a common set of principles and rules. These new community charter schools would best be suited for failing schools as a dramatic measure of restoring the hope of a better educational offer. The introduction of these schools would be only one part of a plan regain the public trust in public education. 

Charter schools are not a magical pill. Public education needs to be reformed and strengthened, but like many teachers and administrators today know, public schools cannot work in a vacuum. They need the support of parents and the community, but the climate for cooperation has been poisoned, not by Charter schools, as the teachers unions suggest but by an unresponsive bureaucratic system, exhaustion, fear and despair.

Teacher’s unions speak of charter schools as the "outsourcing of education," or a "means to enrich private interests."  These accusations show a skewed perspective and advance a discourse that further weakens our beleaguered social contract, by sowing distrust of entrepreneurs and the private sector leaders. The world is not black and white, nor is our society made up of simply haves and have nots. But one thing is certain, inertia never bore change. The teachers unions have unanimously threatened to strike if Charter schools are made a viable legal option.

Given the current state of our economy, facing a teachers strike in order to allow for Charter Schools to operate is inadvisable. Though the governor’s party also has a majority in the Legislature passing such a change would disempower and antagonize educators and the unions. Students would be exposed to strife, irregular schedules, miss out on the opportunity to learn, misinformation would fly, rhetoric and propaganda would be repeated closing doors to level headed discussion or a negotiated approach. Working parents are put between a rock and a hard place. Unrest would negatively impact the private sector as consumer confidence gets side swiped by the perceived instability, the threat of chaos and violence. We are all painfully aware that Puerto Rico is in the midst of its longest recession (Banco Popular confirms it in this report), a strike now would be a shot in the foot to any economic development strategy. 

We need to engage stakeholders and not excommunicate them. So a solution has to be found somewhere else. ­ There is no miracle cure, no safe bet.  Our most important means of reforming education is by taking care in our process fostering transparency, openness and working to gain consensus from stakeholders.  However, we must not confuse consensus with unanimity. Decisions will never be unanimous, differing opinions are an important part of a healthy process.  Choices need to be made, risks need to be weighed and taken. Change has to come.