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Education officials in Puerto Rico announced 283 schools will remain closed this summer nearly seven months after Hurricane Maria struck. They say the hurricane has exacerbated the U.S. territory’s economic slump as families continue to depart for the mainland. Danica Coto, a reporter for the Associated Press, joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss what's at stake for those who remain.
Turning now to Puerto Rico and what's at stake there for students parents and teachers. I'm joined via Skype from San Juan by Danica Coto of the Associated Press. So first of all, why the closures?
Well, the Department of Education has said that in the past three decades, Puerto Rico has seen school enrollment drop by 42% and since May of last year that enrollment has dropped by 38,700. Most of it is due to the economic crisis. But in addition, there's been now roughly 135,000 who have left after Hurricane Maria. So most of it is students to that, in addition to them wanting to consolidate schools and save some money.
What happens to the teachers? What happens to the buildings?
Sure. Well, there's about 4700 teachers who will be affected. The Secretary of Education has promised that no one will lose their job. So the plan is to redistribute them to other schools and those who need more training will receive more training. And then one of the biggest complaint is exactly that what will happen to those schools. You know Puerto Rico from 2010 to 2015 has closed about 150 schools. And then last year, they closed another 179 schools. And now there's about 283 schools that they're closing and most of them have become a blight across the island. Some have haven't turned into community centers. The governor today will make another announcement about how some of these schools will be refurbished. But overall people are complaining that they become an eyesore.
The refurbishment would cost money and money that the government right now doesn't seem to have a lot of extra, correct?
Some of these are being done, some of these refurbishing are being done with help from municipalities with help from the private sector. But again, by and large most of the schools have been abandoned and they remain abandoned.
Now let's talk a little bit about the student composition as well and one of the facts that jumped out from one of the stories you've written recently was a special needs population that's higher in Puerto Rico than in America, the mainland, I should say. Correct?
Puerto Rico has about 30% of its students, which is on roughly 319,000 public school students, 30% of them have special needs, which is about twice the average of the U.S. mainland. And so, the concerns with many of these parents were affected by the school closures. As you know who will teach their kids? How will their education be disrupted? And in addition, what kind of resources will be allocated to these schools?
Let's put this in the context of this larger conversation that's happening on Puerto Rico about privatization. How do charter schools play into this?
Well, the governor recently signed a bill that would establish charter school programs and 10% of Puerto Rico's schools, which so far stand about 1,110 schools and insurances that he'll provide private school vouchers to about 3% of the student population. That too has been opposed by unions here. Teachers here largely because they say they worry that this will fall into private hands that public funds should be used directly for the students and are placed in private hands. They worry about corruption, they worry about mismanagement and overall they feel it might go down the road the same road that Puerto Rico's government did, you know, several decades ago.
Is there an equal distribution of how these schools are being closed down? Is there, is a difference out in the rural area versus the city centers?
Yes, there's a difference. Most of them are in rural areas. The closures have occurred or will occur across the island. Most of them are in rural areas. Salinas, for example, will see nine of its 12 schools close and that's located along the southern coast of the island. In addition, the U.S. will see about half of its school close and that's in the southeast coastal part of the island. And then, along the north coast, there are several other municipalities who will see 44 to 46% of its schools close. And again, the concern with parents is, if you don't have a car or you know how will these students get to there? No, there are no schools if there is no transportation or it's going to take longer? Parents just feel it's just going to be a lot of interruption to their lives.
All right Danica Coto of the Associated Press joining us via Skype tonight. Thanks so much.
Thank you very much.
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