Written By Samantha Orozco and John Whitlock
Puerto Rico is located northeast of the Caribbean Sea and is considered one of the Greater Antilles. Its location boasts beautiful beaches and landscapes but is also prone to hurricanes and other natural hazards that have severely affected its residents. Puerto Rico’s official language is Spanish and it is home to a diverse and multicultural population, with most of its inhabitants of Puerto Rican descent and a significant community of African, European, and Latin American ancestry.
After the Spanish-American War, the United States (US) officially annexed the then Spanish colonies of Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines in December 1898, initially subjecting Puerto Rico to rule by the US military and a governor appointed by the President. In 1917, the US Congress voted to grant Puerto Ricans official citizenship status, while still denying them the representative rights that usually accompany full citizenship. The island’s inhabitants could not elect their own governor until 1947.
To this day, Puerto Ricans are not able to participate in US elections, have no voting representation within the US Congress, and do not hold the right to “equal treatment” in the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution. The island is now an “unincorporated territory” with “quasi-colonial” status, according to former Puerto Rican high school teacher and US Secretary of Education John King. This causes serious consequences in the education system due to limited support from the US federal government and the unfortunate impact of natural hazards, the negative and systematic effects of which have not been adequately addressed.
Education System Overview
The Puerto Rican education system is roughly based on the American model. School attendance is mandatory from ages 6 to 18, and divided into six years of elementary education, three years of junior high school, and three years of high school. Academic calendars and grading scales are very similar to their US equivalents. After numerous failed attempts by the US to convert the Puerto Rican education system to English, Spanish has remained the language in which public schools operate. The high school diploma is known as the “Diploma de Escuela Superior” a literal translation from its mainland English counterpart.
A key difference between challenges to the Puerto Rican school system and the mainland US system is the percentage of children experiencing poverty. According to the Census, 44% of Puerto Ricans live in poverty. Whereas 17% of children live below the poverty line in the US, this percentage is at 55% in Puerto Rico and even higher in rural areas. In 2017, a quarter of Puerto Rican children did not have access to the internet and half did not have access to a home computer.
Today, those who do have a home computer may have unreliable power due to damages to the electrical grid caused by disasters and mismanagement. High school drop-out rates are much higher on the island, especially from households with lower incomes: according to the U.S. Department of Education, the dropout rate among high school students is one-third, which is more than twice the current percentage in mainland US. In 2015, the secondary education net enrollment rate was 66.6% as opposed to 80.5% in mainland US.
This data was published in 2009-2010, which is the most recent information available due to the limited production of up-to-date statistics by the local government. Moreover, federal counts frequently omit Puerto Rico from their calculations. It is likely that the dropout rate in Puerto Rico has likely increased even further since, as hurricanes and the COVID-19 pandemic have exacerbated the situation. For those students who graduate high school, outcomes are not equal to those on the mainland US.
According to the Youth Development Institute of Puerto Rico, 51% of high school graduates pursue university education, whereas 67% of suburban Americans and 63% of rural and urban Americans attend college. Many Puerto Rican graduates who are able to attend college come from privileged backgrounds which enable them to attend private schools and hire college application consultants.
This is in line with the islands’ rank as the third-highest income-unequal in the world, following South Africa and Zambia. Additionally, it is particularly difficult for Puerto Rican students to pursue a college education in the mainland US. As US and Puerto Rican high school graduation tests are not harmonized, Puerto Rican high school students are required to take a Spanish language test that nearly no US mainland universities consider valid. Initially aimed to create a standardized college admissions test for the Spanish-speaking world and implemented for a trial run in Puerto Rico, this test was never expanded beyond. Because of this, and underfunding, most public high school guidance counselors in Puerto Rico do not have knowledge of mainland admission requirements and cannot help students in that way.
In the last year of reported data, “only 694 high school graduates from all of Puerto Rico went to college on the mainland or abroad in 2016. That’s about 2 percent. The island’s population is 3.2 million, according to the Census Bureau.”
A positive aspect of the Puerto Rican education system is that the University of Puerto Rico is more accessible and affordable than comparable universities in the mainland US where the average tuition at a public institution is $25,707 per year (for students with family residence in the state) or $44,014 per year (for students without family residence in the state). In comparison, students at the University of Puerto Rico pay $4,366 in tuition in-state, and $8,712 out-of-state. However, according to advocacy group Excelencia in Education, less than half of students who enroll in Puerto Rican universities earn degrees after six years, compared to the US mainland where 58 percent of college students graduate.
Natural hazards in Puerto Rico
Natural hazards have wreaked havoc in Puerto Rico for many years. Despite being aware of this situation, efforts to mitigate the damage have not been effectively implemented and disaster has been the result. Most of the resources allocated for education are used for repairing school infrastructure, but they remain insufficient.
A clear example of this is the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, which struck in 2017 and six years later still affects the territory. Maria severely impacted access to education in Puerto Rico and exposed deficiencies in both the state and institutional aspects of the system. There was an inability to respond to emergencies and a lack of efficiency in seeking solutions that would allow the population to continue their education.
At the time, according to a report made by Kavitha Cardoza (2023), the damage caused by Maria led to the closure of many schools due to infrastructure problems, leaving thousands of students with no opportunity to continue their studies and resulting in a high dropout rate. This created a vicious cycle, as student attrition reduced enrollment, which in turn led to the closure of schools that did not have enough students to operate.
In addition to hurricanes and floods, Puerto Rico has also experienced earthquakes. In 2020, a series of earthquakes contributed to the destruction of the already precarious school infrastructure. Just as the system was trying to recover from the ravages of Maria, it had to face the closure of schools for three months while engineers verified the safety of those still in operation. The most recent natural catastrophe in Puerto Rico was recorded in September 2022 when Hurricane Fiona struck the island, causing damage to infrastructure and the temporary closure of the few schools that were still functioning.
Bureaucracy and abandonment
Despite its status as an incorporated territory in the United States, discussions about Puerto Rico’s true status and the ongoing debate about its future, whether to be considered a state or attain independence, have not ceased. The only certainty thus far is that Puerto Rican residents are not considered equal to citizens of the U.S. mainland.
The Puerto Rican educational system faces challenges ranging from insufficient investment to talent migration and disparities in educational opportunities. In theory, Puerto Rico has autonomy in managing its resources. However, for many important decisions, authorities find themselves dependent on aid from the federal government. Due to the implementation of PROMESA, an act passed by the Obama administration in 2016, an unelected Financial Management and Oversight Board makes all decisions about how funding is used in Puerto Rico. “The FMOB has proposed an array of measures to “shock the system” into growth”.
These measures include but are not limited: to wage controls, reduction in government services, closing public schools, cuts to the University of Puerto Rico, over 100 percent increases in university tuition and other fees, laying off thousands of public employees, furloughing public employees of two days per month, and cuts of 10 percent from pensions of retired workers. Puerto Rico heavily relies on federal funds to maintain and improve the quality of education, and this insufficient investment has led to a lack of resources and deteriorated infrastructure in many schools. For the start of the 2023-2024 school year, it is estimated that 588 out of the 856 functioning schools opened with infrastructure damage, meaning that 69% of schools are still not in optimal conditions to receive students.
The migration of students and educational professionals to the U.S. mainland has been an additional challenge. The pursuit of better economic opportunities on the mainland has resulted in a decrease in school enrollment in Puerto Rico and a loss of talent in the classrooms. This trend negatively impacts schools and, ultimately, the quality of education provided on the island. This is compounded by poor working conditions for educational staff as well as a lack of investment in the professionalization and training of teachers.
The lack of equal educational opportunities is another critical issue. The fact that Puerto Ricans do not have access to the same resources and educational programs as other United States citizens has led to significant disparities in access to quality education, perpetuating inequality. This is evident in the exclusion of standardized test results in Puerto Rico from national compilation. The implementation of federally imposed educational standards and standardized assessments does not always consider the peculiarities of Puerto Rico’s educational system. This can lead to unfair assessments and the imposition of inappropriate measures that do not adapt to the island’s reality. Special education and support for students with disabilities have also faced challenges, such as the lack of resources and trained personnel to provide the necessary support.
The efforts to restore the Education System
The uncertainty surrounding the political status of Puerto Rico has influenced the stability and educational policies and created additional challenges in long-term planning and decision-making. However, in May of this year, the federal administration initiated a program to decentralize the Puerto Rican educational system, which should be viewed as the beginning of sustainable efforts to ensure a dignified education in Puerto Rico. This is in response to the imminent educational crisis affecting Puerto Rico, which must be addressed regardless of the territory’s political future.
The Biden-Harris Administration has played a significant role in supporting Puerto Rico’s education, providing substantial funding through the American Rescue Plan Act and other programs. As stated by the U.S. Department of Education, public school teachers received a 30% salary increase, school repairs were expedited, and technical assistance was provided to improve the management of federal programs and funds. This move towards decentralization is seen as a historic commitment by the government of Puerto Rico to create a 21st-century educational system that better prepares students for the future. So far, $4.9 billion has been allocated to Puerto Rico since taking office. This includes $3 billion from the American Rescue Plan Act and $1.2 billion from the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act -CRRSA- 2021.
As challenges in infrastructure, inequality, and quality persist, the future of this education system and its ability to create better opportunities and outcomes for its students is largely dependent on the future stance of the US towards Puerto Rico. The Biden administration has made promises of a better, more equitable relationship between Puerto Rico and the mainland U.S., but it remains to be seen whether those are implemented in practice. According to Chris de Soto, a Senior Advisor of the Office of the US Secretary of Education,
“Following two natural disasters and a global pandemic, it is critical that trust is rebuilt with students and families across the island. The public should be aware of how federal funds are contributing to the educational recovery of their schools and actually see the benefits in classrooms across the island. While progress has been made, we know there is more work to do.”
In recent years, US funding to the Puerto Rican education system has increased. In 2022, Puerto Rico’s education system received federal aid funds amounting to $2.62 billion which is five times higher than education funding allocated to Utah, a state with a similar population size, highlighting the US government’s understanding that the Puerto Rican education system is in a more dire situation than the mainland U.S. The key focus remains the prioritization of educational investment in mitigation and contingency plans to strengthen the resilience of the population against the imminent risk of being struck again by natural disasters. Indeed, Puerto Rico’s education system has endured challenges, the reason why the commitment of authorities to a brighter future for the next generations has to remain unwavering.
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