School Switch

Puerto Rico's voucher program


Last fall, while education reformers focused on California's (unsuccessful) school-voucher initiative, a more radical program began in Puerto Rico. It may serve as a model for public and private school-choice measures nationwide.

On September 3, Puerto Rico's legislature passed the Education and School Choice Program. The plan provides a $1,500 voucher to any student who wants to transfer from a public to a private school. It also gives a $1,500 voucher to a public school for any student who wishes to transfer from one public school to another or from a private to a public school.

To qualify for a private-school voucher, the student's family income must be less than $18,000 a year. Any school that is either licensed or accredited can receive vouchers. (To receive a license, a school simply has to satisfy health-and-safety codes.)

Puerto Rico spends $5,574 per K-12 student. As a percentage of per-capita income, that's four times as much as the U.S. average. Puerto Rico's schools have twice as many teachers per student as those on the mainland, but the graduation rate is only 46 percent.

Although the legislature approved the bill less than two weeks before the school year began, more than 1,800 students signed up for vouchers. Nearly two-thirds of them transferred from one public school to another. Interestingly, 317 students switched from private to public schools, compared with only 311 who went from public to private.

The first $10 million in voucher funding came from privatization of the island's long-distance telephone company. Secretary of Education José Arsenio Torres has said any additional money will come from cuts in the Department of Education's $1.5-billion annual budget.

Both the massive bureaucracy and the atrocious performance of the public schools led to passage of the voucher plan. The local teachers' union (with the assistance of the American Civil Liberties Union) has challenged the plan in court.

The Institute for Justice in Washington, D.C., will represent the parents of students who have received vouchers. Director of Litigation Clint Bolick, who successfully defended low-income voucher recipients in Milwaukee, says, "This is the most important [school-choice] litigation ever." While Bolick expects the commonwealth courts to rule on the case this spring, he says the U.S. Supreme Court may ultimately settle this dispute.