When Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico last fall, it became the worst of many natural disasters to hit the U.S. in 2017. Puerto Rico’s situation was out of the ordinary, but in an age of dramatic climate change and unpredictable weather, every community — and school — needs to be prepared to manage the aftermath of a natural disaster.
Hurricane Maria altered the course of daily life in Puerto Rico in every way, but it hit the island’s public K-12 schools especially hard. According to Andrew Ujifusa’s (2017, 2018) excellent on-the-ground reporting for Education Week, nearly every school on the island lost power when Maria hit. That immediately put about 350,000 students out of school for an indefinite period of time and left parents wondering when their local schools would once again be operating safely. As is typical in the aftermath of a natural disaster, schools on the island were repurposed as shelters or support centers, which made the wait for schools to reopen for students even longer.
It is clear that schools in Puerto Rico will never look the same again.
Unfortunately, the reckless politicking that went on after Hurricane Maria did not help Puerto Rico’s schools open any faster. President Donald Trump’s attempts to lowball the impact of the hurricane and the administration’s lackluster response effort have had a chilling effect on Puerto Ricans, many of whom have fled for the mainland with their school-age children in tow. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has visited the island and pledged ongoing support, but it is clear that schools in Puerto Rico will never look the same again. In early February, Education Week estimated that about 340 public schools still did not have power and between 25,000 and 30,000 students had left the island. The schools that are open cannot consistently depend on power or water and are also managing structural damage, mold, and rats. Even Dickens could not have scripted a scenario this shameful.
Facing a hard reality
Many are quick to point out that the plight of public schools in Puerto Rico was pretty terrible even before the hurricane. Mismanagement and corruption on the island had resulted in massive debt and a failing public infrastructure, and, as a result, many schools lacked proper oversight, supplies, and updated technology. To save money and consolidate resources, the Puerto Rico Department of Education closed 167 schools at the end of the 2017 school year — before Maria made an already bad situation worse. Even with a billion-dollar disaster relief package finally approved by Congress, Puerto Rico and its schools are facing the hard reality that, with so many families and students seeking a new life on the mainland, the public education system in Puerto Rico has to transform itself.
It’s hard not to compare Puerto Rico’s plight with New Orleans post-Katrina. As in Puerto Rico, the public schools in New Orleans had major issues even before Katrina hit. Many children lived in poverty, and the public schools ranked close to bottom in achievement (Subberwal, 2017). After Katrina, families and students spread to the wind, seeking refuge in other parts of Louisiana or in nearby cities like Houston. The state took over most of the public schools and turned them into charter schools, creating the Recovery School District. Thousands of teachers were fired, and a lottery system was put in place to determine school assignments for students. This sweeping strategy, which was remarkable for the time, has since been watched, evaluated, and written about by reformers, policy makers, and the media.
In the aftermath of Katrina, many New Orleans citizens expressed the same concerns that are now surfacing in Puerto Rico. Parents worry they will have no say in decision making about public education on the island. Although families are desperate for things to improve and change, they are concerned about preserving their communities and their culture and therefore want to be involved in planning what comes next.
Depending on your point of view, Puerto Rico’s governor, Ricardo Rossello, may have stoked concerns about the future of the island’s public schools. In early February, he announced that school choice — including vouchers and charter schools — would be part of the plan to rebuild the public school system. For now, the governor’s plan is fairly modest, but given that Puerto Rico currently has no charter schools, even a modest move in that direction would represent a new era in public education for the island. Predictably, charter school advocates are excited about his announcement, but some experts have pointed out that the island has no experience nor infrastructure for managing charter schools. Networks, relationships, human capital, external partners, and additional resources all matter when enacting a charter or choice strategy, and characterizing vouchers and charter schools as the easy answer to all of education’s woes may be a mistake.
With so much devastation and isolation, and so little access to additional support and resources, it is hard to imagine how Puerto Rico will regain its footing. If one can believe it, the challenges that faced New Orleans post-Katrina pale by comparison. Given these hurdles, public school advocates fear Puerto Rico’s schools are quickly becoming a target for those seeking opportunity amidst the chaos. The worry is that for-profit entities, emboldened by the Trump administration’s pro-school-choice agenda, will take advantage of desperate parents and a disorganized governance structure to set up sweet deals that focus more on making money than on meeting students’ needs. And the administration’s disdain for regulation and oversight only makes things more worrisome.
Learning from others’ experiences
In the midst of all this fear and uncertainty, it is important to remember that there are still families and students in Puerto Rico (and Houston, Florida, and California), trying to make it through each challenging day. Natural disasters leave behind a path of destruction, deprivation, and anxiety, all of which have a negative effect on education. In light of what we experienced in 2017 and what the weather experts tell us about the future, education leaders and policy makers may need to make disaster planning a high priority in the years ahead.
Even Dickens could not have scripted a scenario this shameful.
Although Puerto Rico is poised to be the largest post-disaster case study for U.S. schools, there is much we can learn now from New Orleans and other areas that have experienced disasters. We can also learn from those in the international community who are working in the area of refugee education. Like victims of natural disasters, refugees are often forced to move from their communities, perhaps even multiple times, and they are separated from their social networks and may be suffering from trauma and anxiety. Organizations like the International Rescue Committee and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, who understand that maintaining a quality education during times of crisis is crucial to students’ long-term well-being, have developed programs to ensure that displaced students have access to education.
Mahatma Gandhi (and many others since) said that a nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members. If this is true, the ongoing struggle to rebuild and renew Puerto Rico speaks volumes about how the U.S. responds to vulnerability and great need. It pains me to think that other communities and school systems will likely be put in the same position one day, but it also seems inevitable. For now, education leaders would be wise to start thinking about what happens if the unimaginable hits their own community. Even those of us on the mainland may be left to fend for ourselves.
Subberwal, K. (2017, August 31). Harvey’s impact on students could be felt “for generations.” HuffPost.
Ujifusa, A. (2018, February 1). Crumbling classrooms and power outages: Inside Puerto Rico’s storm-damaged schools. Education Week.
Ujifusa, A. (2017, October 8). In Puerto Rico, a daunting effort to reopen schools, headed by a determined leader. Education Week.
Citation: Ferguson, M. (2018). The plight of Puerto Rico. Phi Delta Kappan 99 (7), 74-75.