Thursday, October 20, 2011

A Shining Star

Earlier this week, U.S Education Secretary Arne Duncan spoke at the Puerto Rico Education Summit regarding the urgent need for the island to improve the quality of its public school system. In his speech, he highlighted some important factors, which includes "embracing innovation, academic rigor, accountability, and effective strategies for accelerating learning for all students." He used The School of San Juan as an example, given that it was one out of hundreds of schools worldwide to be selected into Microsoft's Partner in Learning program. Two of the things that make The San Juan School so unique, besides the fact that it's a bilingual public school, is the existence of a pre-school program and its 7:30AM-5PM schedule.

Studies have shown that children who were enrolled in pre-school programs, compared to those who didn't, have higher incomes, attain a higher education level and are less likely to be involved in criminal activity when they become adults. This is particularly true for children who come from poverty-stricken homes. Nowadays, most local and state governments are spending more money building and maintaining prisons rather than investing in establishing pre-schools. The controversial Head Start program exists in Puerto Rico though.

While much attention has been given to the dilapidated conditions in many public schools throughout the island, the U.S Department of Education announced a $153 million grant to remodel an estimated 63 schools, not enough focus has been given on teacher performance and school curriculum. I live near a public high school, as well as a private one. Those who attend the former are probably in class no more than six hours a day, while those in the latter group less than five hours a day. As for the number of school days, I can say with much confidence, that for most of the island's schoolchildren, it is nowhere near those of top academic performing countries such as Singapore and South Korea.

In discussing how Puerto Rico can improve its public education system, Education Secretary Duncan did not bring up the issue of charter schools. This can largely be attributed to the huge resistance from the teacher's unions, as expected. Governor Fortuño, a strong supporter of public-private partnerships, has also gone craven when the topic of charter schools emerges. As local educators and government officials look for ways to overhaul the island's public school system, perhaps they should emulate The School of San Juan model. Much is at stake when it comes to the continuing laggard performance of schoolchildren, which speaks volumes on the island's future.

Note: The image above was obtained from the official Web site of the City of San Juan.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Occupying Beyond Wall Street

From the streets of Athens to those of New York, an increasing number of people are voicing their anger and frustration over the economy, the lack of jobs, and a mounting sense of injustice as the rich continue to get an even greater share of wealth. In a recent PBS Newshour story, it was found that the median salary of CEOs have quadrupled over the last four decades while average salaries for most workers remain stagnant. A torrent of fury was unleashed when it was revealed that Miguel Cordero, now the former Executive Director of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), took home $400,000 in salary and bonuses last year. This revelation came at a particularly infelicitous moment when most island residents saw their electricity bills, which are already astronomically high, skyrocket even further. PREPA, a government entity, has also been operating at a loss for the past few years.

In Puerto Rico, there never seems to be a governmental agency not subject to corruption. The latest involves the Department of Education, where a number of officials have been charged with bribery and money laundering. Another controversial case involves the Fortuño administration, which has yet to receive final approval on the construction of the gas pipeline but has already assigned millions of dollars to contractors (many of whom are buddies of the Governor). Meanwhile, Medical Card Systems (MCS) has accused the government of falling back on its payments under the Mi Salud health plan, which is the Puerto Rican version of Medicaid. Government officials have emphatically denied such accusations. In the end, thousands of beneficiaries (mostly low income and the elderly) under the MCS plan of Mi Salud were temporarily left without coverage as the finger-pointing ensued.

On Oct. 15th, the island will be joining the Occupy Wall Street movement to express their indignation over a litany of issues ranging from governmental corruption to the demise of societal values. Critics of the Occupy Wall Street protests argue that the demonstrators lack a unified message. Nevertheless, there are indeed commonalities in all these demonstrations whether it be in San Juan or Madrid. Perhaps the most pronounced is the growing chasm between the haves and the have-nots, and the urgent need for the latter (and the shrinking middle class) to collectively raise its voices. Let's hope that those in office are listening and will pay heed to this ever-growing movement.

(Note: the image above was obtained from