The Myth of Underfunded Education in Puerto Rico

EspañolI remember sitting in a chemistry classroom in a government school in Puerto Rico in the 1980s, as the professor told me there wasn’t enough money to buy lab equipment. We would have to make drawings in our notebooks of lab equipment and pretend to conduct the experiments. When I asked him about it later, he alluded to the fact that Puerto Rico just didn’t get as much money as other US schools.

I sat pondering this issue of unfairness as I looked out the screen-less windows of the classroom and swatted a mosquito in the midst of yet another Dengue Fever outbreak.… A couple of years later I attended a Defense Department School at Roosevelt Roads Naval Station (also in Puerto Rico), and not only did they have lab equipment, they had chemicals and safety stations.

How unfair could the United States be?

As I grew a bit older, I heard at one point that the Puerto Rico education budget was larger than the entire national budget for the Dominican Republic next door. I began to smell a rat. In fact, former Education Secretary Victor Fajardo served half of a 25-year prison sentence and was released in 2013 after pleading guilty to facilitating the extortion of millions of dollars for himself and his political party.

But that was just a few million dollars. Why is it that teachers are paid so little in Puerto Rico? Why are classrooms still missing basic materials? Why are schools in such bad condition? Is it money?

Let’s take a look.

US governments at all levels currently spend about US$11,000 per year per student. That is a lot of money. Puerto Rico? About $11,000 per student per year. Wait, what? That can’t possibly be true, right? Puerto Rico, twice as poor as the poorest US state, spends nearly the exact same amount of money on education as the US average, and the commonwealth still can’t pay her teachers more than poverty-level wages?

El Secretario de Educación Rafael Román visitó varias escuelas durante el comienzo del curso escolar.
Puerto Rican Education Secretary Rafael Román visits with students at the start of the 2014-2015 year. (DE Facebook)

During the 2013-2014 school year, the Puerto Rico education budget was $3.6 billion — more than 12 percent of the island’s total budget. This year, the island welcomed about 325,000 students (roughly 81 percent) out of a projected 400,000 anticipated enrollment. At 325,000 students, that works out to $11,000 per student, at the full 400,000, it works out to be about $9,000 per student.

As a side note, 97 percent of principals and 95 percent of teachers reported for work on the first day. As of 2013, teachers in Puerto Rico made a base salary of just $18,000 dollars per year, or $1,750 per month. While the pay varies by state, the average teacher’s salary in the 50 states is about $56,000 per year. South Dakota pays just under $40,000 per year, while lowly Mississippi averages about $41,000.

Governor Alejandro García Padilla has promised a pay raise for teachers, but he says a raise to $3,000 per month — which is what the unions are asking for — would cost the island about $1 billion per year. That’s money the island just doesn’t have at the moment. For once, the governor is right, but teachers are leaving the island for greener pastures, just like other professionals who are sick of dealing with life in Puerto Rico and want not only better money, but a better life.

So what could one do with the $3.6 billion budget to achieve a greater impact on schools, teachers, and students? Maybe the first thing we should ask is, where does all that money go in the first place? Or better still, how do “expensive” private schools rate on the scale of cost versus services delivered?

Private schools in Puerto Rico tell a different story about how much things should cost. At the very high end is Ivy League college-prep Robinson School, whose website indicates that 11th and 12th grade students pay just shy of $12,000 per year in tuition and another couple thousand in fees, so let’s call it $14,000 per year. Tuition and fees at another college-prep school in the Palmas del Mar Resort community are less than $7,000 per year. Meanwhile in Ponce, the all English but small Washburn Academy charges a mere $3,000 per year per student, including fees and lunch!

In other words, for the amount of money Puerto Rico spends on education, every student should be in a college-prep program, fluent in English and Spanish and ready to take on the world. Wherever the money is going, one thing is clear: mandatory government education has failed again. It has failed the teachers, the students, and the commonwealth.

What would be wrong with privatizing the entire system? Would private interests really be such a bad alternative to the system we have right now? While government would retain some oversight and regulatory authority over taxpayer-funded schools, even if they were privately managed, there is no reason why the island could not raise the standards to require that students be fluent in two languages and be given college-preparatory classes — and still spend less money. We could even see better quality teachers get raises from the private institutions.

We can do better; it’s time we start.

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