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Julia Keleher: The Destroyer of Public Schools in Puerto Rico

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Julia Keleher will one day have engraved on her tombstone: “She Destroyed the Public Schools in Puerto Rico.” She joins the blog’s Wall of Shame for her shameless assault on public schools, the teachers’  union, and the students of Puerto Rico.

Keleher resigned her position as Puerto Rico’s Secretary of State earlier this week. Her resignation comes after two years of top down education reform. She was hated by the Island’s teachers. She’s closed more than 350 schools in Puerto Rico, worked hand in hand with Betsy DeVos to undercut public schools by bringing vouchers and charters to the island, undermined special education services for students and threatened to turn over 30 schools to fly-by-night companies with no experience who want to cash in on schools.

She is the Betsy DeVos of Puerto Rico, although she was neither born nor raised there. She was born in Philadelphia, where she attended Catholic school. She received her BA from the University of Pennsylvania and graduate degrees from the University of Delaware and the for-profit Strayer University. There is no indication on her Wikipedia bio that she ever taught, though she has done consulting, data-driven management, web-based stuff, project management, and worked for the for-profit Sylvan tutoring services. She is a Republican. She was imported to Puerto Rico to disrupt the public schools on behalf of Wall Street and the power elite.

The Yale Education Leadership conference still invited her to keynote its ed reform conference yesterday that’s supported by the Walton Foundation, Broad, 50CAN (funded by Jonathan Sackler of the opioid industry) and other right-wing organizations. Puerto Rican students from Yale wrote an open letter to Yale and to Julia Keleher which they distributed before she spoke. Imagine that: A conference on education funded only by right-wing foundations! Now there is a balanced discussion!

The letter is below.

To the Yale School of Management Education Leadership Conference:

I am disappointed, yet not surprised, that this year’s Education Leadership Conference has chosen to host Julia Keleher as one of their keynote speakers for leaders in education reform. Keleher’s “reform” of the Puerto Rican public education system does not serve to solve any of its problems but rather to mutilate it in order to benefit all but those Puerto Rican citizens who actually rely on high quality public schools. This celebration of Keleher’s work only displays the way in which members of elite institutions like the Yale School of Management can be so blind to the reality and context of life in Puerto Rico.

 

To Former Secretary of the Puerto Rico Department of Education Julia Keleher:

 

During your time as the Secretary of the Puerto Rico Department of Education, you promoted the closing of over 400 public schools. You boasted that schools were mostly back to normal just weeks after Hurricane Maria, despite the fact that many schools still did not have power well into January of 2018.

 

Rather than overseeing plans that would put the public school system onto a path of genuine recovery and growth, you pushed the creation of charter schools. In addition to this quasi-privatization of public schools, you blatantly spoke out about your intentions to meld schools with the private sector. You even boldly stated that students in Culebra should start being trained to be streamlined into the tourism industry, as if tourism should be prioritized as the only viable option for young Puerto Rican students as they grow up.

 

Even now as you step down from your former position, you will receive a salary of $250,000 just to serve as an advisor the education department of Puerto Rico. This is more than 10 times the average salary of a teacher in Puerto Rico, which only further highlights the longstanding disrespect you have exemplified for the public school teachers of PR. You have described unionized teachers engaging in peaceful civil disobedience as “violent” in attempts to invalidate their defense of an uncompromised public school system. Teacher unions have been part of the foundation of Puerto Rican cultural preservation, as they were key activists in the fight against English-only education efforts in the 1900’s and for keeping Puerto Rican history and cultural traditions in curriculum.

 

PR’s community of teachers has already been damaged by recent anti-union legislation, and your proposed charter schools would only further harm it as teachers and locally elected school board members are largely left out of their decision making process. These charter schools which you proudly explain are schools that use government funding yet are run privately (or in other words, not run democratically) further expose the colonial government practices already present in PR, which you uphold.

 

Beyond the political tone-deafness of the “reform” you have implemented in Puerto Rico, your sureness of their success only speaks to how little you understand life in Puerto Rico and the students you are meant to serve. PR residents know how long it can take to travel around the island due to road congestion and a lack of reliable public transportation. Forcing teachers to work 2 hours away from home through your merging of public schools is hugely disrespectful to their time and value. Working parents also cannot just drive their children to far away schools when buses are not available. Furthermore, the higher number of buses that would be required to transport students to school would only worsen the air pollution which causes Puerto Rican children to suffer some of the highest rates of asthma in the world.

 

Charter schools also consistently underserve and exclude students with special education needs, which account for more than 40% of all Puerto Rican students. This must not be ignored in plans for PR’s public school system.

 

The island’s limited funds for public education should be used to repair and update existing school buildings, not spent on unnecessary and detrimental charter schools and temporary trailers. You have relied on the emigration of families after Hurricanes Maria and Irma to justify your closing of schools, but basic logic dictates that closing schools would only worsen the conditions that made them leave in the first place. For many Puerto Ricans, moving to the mainland US was not meant to be a permanent relocation, but your “reform” only makes it harder for families to eventually return to their homes. You are closing pillars of local communities, which in turn weakens the entire island’s social and economic progress.

 

Though perhaps said jokingly, perhaps said in attempts to ameliorate the image of a non-Puerto Rican undermining the island’s public school system, you have referred to Puerto Rico as your “adopted land.” Though being Puerto Rican is not just about where you live and the diaspora is an integral part of the community, a fundamental part of Puerto Rican identity is a deep shared history of struggle and resilience, which you can never be a part of. This is especially true with your commitment to your role remaining outside of the sphere of the island’s politics. While the support of public education should always be bipartisan, no current administrative position in Puerto Rico is apolitical, especially not under the undemocratically appointed fiscal control board of PROMESA.

 

Sincerely,
Adriana Colón-Adorno

 

Yale College Class of 2020

 

Supporters of this Letter:

Dr. Adriana Garriga-López

Department Chair and Associate Professor of Anthropology at Kalamazoo College in Michigan

[email protected]

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