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Writer Christopher Rim asks a reasonable question in this article in Forbes: Did Betsy DeVos’ passion for school choice enable the corruption in administration of federal education funds in Puerto Rico? I was particularly pleased to read this article because Rim is a brilliant young man who does not usually write about education.
Yesterday, the former education secretary of Puerto Rico, Julia Keleher, returned to the island to stand trial after being arrested by the FBI on July 10th on fraud charges. Specifically, she and a government official in the insurance sector have been charged with using their government positions and connections to misdirect federal funding and award bloated, fraudulent contracts to their personal connections (several of whom were also arrested on the 10th). Some see this as vindication for the Trump administration, which has cited potential misuse of funds as one of their reasons for repeatedly trying to hold back much-needed funds, most recently funding for food stamps. However, this alleged fraud actually has more to do with policies of reducing public school funding in favor of private and charter schools, a shift made popular by Education Secretary Betsy Devos.
This scandal comes as a shock to many, but those who have been paying close attention to Keleher’s salary and budgeting, as well as the state of education in Puerto Rico during her two-year tenure, saw her arrest as a vindication of what they have been protesting throughout her time in office. Keleher assumed the responsibilities of Puerto Rico’s education secretary in early 2017. There was immediate controversy over her salary— at $250,000 annually, she was already Puerto Rico’s highest-paid public official, earning ten times more than the average Puerto Rican teacher, three times more than Puerto Rico governor Ricardo Roselló, and 25% more than Secretary DeVos. She maintained this salary even after Hurricane Maria—in fact, she attempted to use a foundation’s donation to the Puerto Rican education system to raise it to $400,000, the same salary as the US President. In the wake of Hurricane Maria, she had to spearhead the education-related relief efforts. Keleher used this tragedy as an opportunity to try her own plans to redesign Puerto Rico’s school system. She led wide-scale education reform efforts and referred to the island’s education system as a ‘laboratory’ to test the Devos model, as she pushed to adopt private school vouchers and charter schools while closing hundreds of public schools. While schools were struggling to recover from the hurricane, Kelleher worked to permanently close over 20% of them—263 public schools were shut down during her time as education secretary. Because of these closures, 5,000 teachers lost their jobs and 75,000 students were displaced.
All of this led to protests on local, national and international scales. In March 2018, thousands of educators marched to the capitol in protest of the voucher and charter school program. On twitter, critics started the hashtag “#JuliaGoHome” in order to publicly decry her unjust policies. In April of 2019, after she had resigned, Keleher attended an education conference at Yale to speak about leadership. At the conference, a student circulated a letter about the shortcomings and negative repercussions of Keleher’s so-called “reform” efforts. After her arrest, both of the island’s teachers’ unions issued statements that theyfelt vindicated in their longstanding disagreements with and protests against Keleher and her policies. One of these unions, the Asociación de Maestros de Puerto Rico (AMPR) had filed a lawsuit in April of last year to protest Keleher’s reforms, arguing that “the new law and separate fiscal reforms will cost teachers jobs, hurt students, and dismember the island’s public education system.” By that point, 179 schools had already been closed, and 263 would soon face the same fate.