Puerto Rico partnership

Top school choice group advising Puerto Rico on controversial efforts to expand charters and vouchers

English class teacher Joan Rodriguez talks to one of her 6th grade student at the Sotero Figueroa Elementary School in San Juan, Puerto Rico, November 6, 2017. The school reopened its doors without electricity to receive students 46 days after Hurricane Maria hit the island. (RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP/Getty Images)

EdChoice, a group that backs school vouchers, is preparing to help Puerto Rico officials expand school choice, or what critics there have called “privatization.”

Robert Enlow, the group’s president, told Chalkbeat the request came from Julia Keleher, Puerto Rico’s secretary of education, and that EdChoice would “provide some technical assistance.”

“They’re brand new at this and we’re trying to help them understand what’s been going on in other states, how states have run [choice programs], what the rules are, what the benefits and the challenges have been,” said Enlow, who spoke to Chalkbeat in Austin at SXSW EDU. “It’s really around policy advice and fiscal expertise.” (EdChoice is a funder of Chalkbeat.)

Keleher said in an interview that she had spoken with people from EdChoice in a call, but that they were just one of many groups, from a variety of perspectives, whose advise she has received. She said during the conversation EdChoice mentioned their statistical staff, and Keleher was interested in learning more, but said there’s no formal agreement.

Keleher also said she is looking at different states that have implemented school choice programs. “I don’t want to make mistakes that people have made before,” she said.

Keleher said she’s open to a variety of policy views. “I don’t think there’s one way to solve a complex problem,” she said.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, which rocked Puerto Rico schools and prompted thousands of residents to leave the island, Keleher and Governor Ricardo Rosselló have proposed closing 300 of its 1,100 traditional public schools. Rosselló also introduced a bill to Puerto Rico’s legislature that would allow for charter schools and vouchers.

This has sparked fierce pushback from Puerto Rico’s teachers union and prominent U.S. Senators, including Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

“The school privatization proposal in Puerto Rico would pull much-needed money away from public schools,” said Sanders at a recent event at the Albert Shanker Institute, which is affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers. “The proposal at hand would completely disrupt and destabilize the existing public school system already struggling to rebuild.”

The involvement of EdChoice, formerly known as the Friedman Foundation, is sure to stoke the controversy even further. Puerto Rico’s governor has also met with Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, and Jason Botel, a department official, has been in “close communication” with Keleher.

Enlow rejected criticism that choice advocates are taking advantage of a natural disaster. “If there’s a tragic situation … it’s about whether you’re doing it well and doing it with good intentions,” he said.

This story has been updated with comment Puerto Rico Secretary of Education Julia Keleher.

call for more

Almost half of Detroit district schools don’t have a gym teacher. Next year, that may change.

Students during PE class at Lyn Knoll Elementary School in 2016 in Aurora, Colorado. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Since 10-year-old Hezekiah Haynesworth moved to his new school in the Detroit district, he’s always up out of his seat, talking to classmates and getting into trouble.

His mother, Victoria, says he wasn’t always like this. She believes he has nowhere to burn off excess energy because Bagley Elementary doesn’t offer students enough time for gym class or recess.

Bagley Elementary is one of 49 schools in the district without a gym teacher. Out of the 106 schools in the district, only 57 have at least one certified, full-time physical education teacher, according to data obtained by Chalkbeat.

The district employs 68 certified full-time physical education teachers for its student population of 50,875. More than 15,000 Detroit schoolchildren attend a school without a full time physical education teacher.

In Michigan, there are no laws requiring schools to offer recess. As for physical education, schools are required to offer the class, but the amount of time isn’t specified, which means some kids, like Hezekiah, might only go once a month or less.

“He’s had behavior issues, but if he had the gym time there’s different activities he would do to burn off energy,” she said. “They would get that anxiety and fidgetiness out of them.”

Haynesworth might get her wish. Superintendent Nikolai Vitti announced earlier this month that there’s money in the budget to put gym teachers back in schools, along with art and music teachers and guidance counselors next school year, though the budget plan has not yet been approved.

“Not every student is provided an opportunity for physical education or gym” right now, Vitti said at a meeting earlier this month.

The district has almost 200 teacher vacancies, and giving schools money for a gym teacher doesn’t mean a school will be able to hire one.

But Vitti said he has several efforts in the works, like more recruiting trips and better hiring practices, to address the difficulties of finding and bringing in new employees.

Detroit is not the only district that has cut back on physical education teachers in recent years. At a time when schools are heavily judged by how well students perform on math and reading exams, some schools have focused their resources on core subjects, cutting back on the arts and gym and cutting recess to make more time for instruction and test prep. But experts say that approach is short-sighted.

Research on the importance of physical activity in schools has reached a consensus — physical education improves children’s focus and makes them better students.

“Available evidence suggests that mathematics and reading are the academic topics that are most influenced by physical activity,” according to a 2013 federal report.

The link between physical education and improved reading is especially important for the Detroit district. Educators are working in high gear, in part pushed by Vitti, to prepare for the state’s tough new law that will go into effect in 2020, requiring third-graders who don’t read at grade level to be held back.

This year, the Michigan Department of Education has started to include data on physical education in schools into its school scoring system, which allows parents to compare schools. A separate score for physical education might push schools to hire physical education teachers.

Whether the state’s new emphasis on gym class or Vitti’s proposal to place a gym teacher in each district school is enough to put physical activity back in the schools is unclear, but Hezekiah’s mom Victoria desperately hopes it happens.

Hezekiah is given 45 minutes to each lunch, and if he finishes early, he’s allowed to run with the other children who finished early. If he doesn’t eat quickly enough to play, Victoria says she can expect a call about his disruptive behavior.

“I used to think that my son was just a problem — that it was just my problem,” she said. “But it’s a system problem. They don’t have the components they should have in the school.”

See which schools have gym teachers below.

Out of the game

The businessman who went to bat for apprenticeships is out of Colorado’s governor’s race

Democratic gubernatorial candidates Donna Lynne, Noel Ginsburg and Cary Kennedy at a candidate forum hosted by the Colorado Association of School Boards. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

Noel Ginsburg, an advocate for apprenticeships and a critic of Colorado’s teacher effectiveness law, has withdrawn from the Democratic race for governor.

Ginsburg, a businessman who had never run for office before, always faced a tough road to the nomination. He announced Tuesday that he would not continue with the petition-gathering or assembly process after his last place finish in the caucus, where he got 2 percent of the vote.

In an interview with The Denver Post, Ginsburg said, “I don’t believe I have the resources to be fully competitive.”

Just last month, Ginsburg released an education platform that called for the repeal of Colorado’s teacher effectiveness law, the signature legislative achievement of former state Sen. Mike Johnston, also a candidate for governor.

Ginsburg runs CareerWise, an apprenticeship initiative of Gov. John Hickenlooper that allows students to earn money and college credit while getting on-the-job experience starting in high school. His platform called for expanding apprenticeship programs and getting businesses more involved in education.

He also promised to lead a statewide effort to change the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights to allow the state to retain more revenue and send much of it to schools. He said that schools, not roads, should be the top priority of Colorado’s next governor.

Ginsburg will continue at the head of CareerWise, as well as Intertech Plastics, the company he founded.

Johnston, U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne have all turned in signatures to place their names on the ballot. Former Treasurer Cary Kennedy, who has the endorsement of two teachers unions, is not gathering signatures and will need at least 30 percent of the vote at the assembly to appear on the ballot. Kennedy finished in first place at the caucus earlier this month.