By Enid Rosario Ramos and Awilda Rodriguez
Puerto Rican Governor Rosselló’s defiant stay in office amid a long list of corruption scandals —including the arrests of former Education Secretary Julia Keleher and character-questioning leaked chats— is the latest illustration of the assumed entitlement to govern by the Puerto Rico’s wealthy. The resounding and intensifying calls for Rosselló’s resignation (#RickyRenuncia), as well as the demands for an end to government corruption suggest Puerto Rico is on the precipice of change. In order to disrupt the long-standing practices of corruption and to secure the future for our children, Puerto Ricans have a unique opportunity to go beyond the calls for the governor’s resignation and demand the severing of ties between its educational institutions and political parties.
Puerto Rico’s educational institutions have been a frequent source of revenue for the wealthy and well-connected seeking government contracts and high-paid positions at the cost of Puerto Rican families. The July 10 arrest of Keleher, for conspiring to award government contracts to unqualified companies owned by her friends, was a familiar headline to Puerto Ricans. Many quickly drew comparisons between Keleher’s arrest and the conviction of former secretary Victor Fajardo in 2002, who was found guilty of extortion and money laundering in a scheme that funneled $4.3 million dollars out of the Department of Education. With crumbling infrastructure and a lack of supplies, Puerto Rican families have been on the hook for poor gubernatorial appointments.
Puerto Rico needs to divorce the educational system from party politics, which means limiting the reach of any one governor or political party in their appointments in key education positions. In U.S/ politics, education is a common sector for governors, regardless of party, to repay their supporters with cushy appointments—to university boards of trustees, for example. In Puerto Rico, however, this setup is especially problematic for a number of reasons.
First, the Education Secretary in Puerto Rico is an incredibly powerful position. Puerto Rican law establishes that the Education Secretary is fourth in the line of succession for the governorship. Unlike the states where the school districts and local school boards have some say in the adoption of curriculum or school closings, there is no such buffer against top-down decisions in Puerto Rico. Historically, the Education Secretary in Puerto Rico has been a political appointee with no input from and limited accountability to the Puerto Rican people.
Keleher’s tenure was illustrative of such omnipotence. Many educators and families cried foul of her plans for public school closings due to decreases in student enrollment, which came with little attempt to garner communities’ input and little explanation of school selection. She defended her actions by remarking in a speech “someone had to be the responsible adult in the room,” suggesting she alone was equipped to make the sound tough choices for Puerto Rican children. She would close 438 schools.
Keleher also helped materialize the governor’s education agenda by introducing a reform package that included charter school and voucher programs. Many educators argued that this move would further erode public school rosters, given school enrollments have dropped by 44 percent in the last decade. The move sparked teacher protests and denials from her office that she was moving to privatize the education system. American Federation of Teachers Randi Weingarten remarked Keleher “treated educators and parents as a speed bump.” No other Education Secretary in the US has such unilateral authority.
Second, upward mobility on the island is stifled because the elite professional and educational opportunities are largely hoarded by a closed social network of politically connected and wealthy families. The well-known saying “el que no tiene padrino no se bautiza,” or rather “those without a godfather are not baptized,” underscores the well-understood plutocracy that operates on the island. Earlier this year, the #hijostalentosos Twitter campaign was started to denounce the nepotism in the awarding of government positions and contracts which gave access to millions of dollars in public funds to the children of wealthy and politically-connected boomers. And more recently, the leaked content of the chat provided additional evidence of a vast marketplace of political favors being traded among the well-connected in Puerto Rico to hoard power and resources while the majority of the population struggled with a declining economy and the slow post-hurricane recovery. This opportunity hoarding comes at a cost, as the island continues to bleed its frustrated middle- and low-income families who migrate in search of economic mobility elsewhere.
Third, gubernatorial appointments in Puerto Rico extend to college campus leadership. The Governor has majority control of the board that oversees postsecondary institutions on the island through appointment (8 out of 13 seats). In turn, the board votes on the University of Puerto Rico System President, providing a direct line to the Governor’s office. The President then names the chancellors for each campus (to be approved by the board). Within one week in 2017, the board decided on a president in a 10-minute meeting (with the academic community’s votes dissenting), and the president went on to dismiss 10 campus chancellors and announce their replacements—a move many criticized but the Governor called “normal.” When college presidents’ and chancellors’ tenure is tied to the winning political party’s time in power, it has substantial implications for institutional investment and memory. This constant cycle of disruption makes it especially challenging to achieve alignment and continuity in the goals and direction of the institution.
Furthermore, the tentacles of the governor’s office have historically reached into the rank and file of the university. In October of 2018, the dean of the education school was removed after testifying, in direct contradiction of Rosselló’s educational reform, against the approval of charter schools in Puerto Rico. And even Rosselló himself was appointed to a faculty position at the Recinto de Ciencias Médicas —which are highly coveted and scarce on the island— despite the university’s lack of funds and resources for faculty hiring. His appointment was highly criticized for not following the required hiring procedures and was largely perceived as a move to build his reputation in preparation for his eventual bid for the governorship. As opportunities continue to be doled out to under- (or tangentially-) qualified donors and friends, Puerto Rico loses the opportunity to benefit from and cultivate talent across the island and undermines the academic freedom that is central to faculty work.
All told, the governor has enormous influence on the educational institutions that serve the Puerto Rican people from early childhood to postsecondary education.
The Puerto Rican plutocracy has not been a good steward of public education in Puerto Rico. Puerto Ricans have the opportunity to reimagine their relationship with its government and the endless web of self-serving appointments; as well as the contractors and subcontractors that siphon off funds as children sit in classrooms lacking the necessary resources for a quality education. At this juncture, the Puerto Rican people should demand public participation in the selection of educational officials, including publicly-elected school boards and trustees. This is not a novel idea; there are several models of education governance that include stronger public participation. To enact true and enduring reform, when Ricky goes, he needs to take the governorship’s deep reach into education with him.
Enid Rosario Ramos is an assistant professor in Educational Studies at the University of Michigan and studies the schooling of Puerto Rican children. Her research includes youth civic engagement, adolescent literacy, and Latinx education. Awilda Rodriguez is an assistant professor in the Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education at the University of Michigan. She studies issues of college preparation and access and its intersections with higher ed policy, with a focus on Black, Latinx, and low-income communities. Together, Rosario Ramos and Rodriguez are currently engaged in a study on hurricane-affected Puerto Rican students’ educational transitions to Florida after Maria.