WASHINGTON— Six months after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, 270 schools are operating without power, families are leaving the island and the federal government hasn’t done enough to help children, several Democratic congressional leaders said Tuesday.
At least 56 percent of children were living in poverty and 84 percent of children were living in high-poverty areas before the hurricane struck the island, a report released Tuesday from the Youth Development Institute of Puerto Rico said. The hurricane could exacerbate the situation by restricting access to power and clean water, increasing poverty in families and forcing public schools to close.
The island could lose an estimated 42,771 children, or 8 percent of its childhood population, in the next two years, a report from Hunter College’s Center for Puerto Rican Studies said. The Center predicts an overall loss of 470,000 people, 14 percent of the island’s population, by the end of 2019.
Since the storm destroyed 87,094 homes and damaged over 300,000 in September, over 3,500 Puerto Ricans are still living in hotels in Puerto Rico and on the mainland under a Temporary Sheltering Assistance program funded by the Federal Emergency Management Authority. A FEMA report said 93 percent of power, 98 percent of cell service and 99 percent of potable water has been restored across the island. But the agency has only approved 40 percent of requests for home repairs.
About 320,000 students are enrolled in Puerto Rico public schools, down from 350,000 before the Hurricane.
Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said lawmakers should focus on maintaining Puerto Rico’s public education system after the storm. She touted a bill proposed by Democratic Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont that would provide $3.16 billion in aid to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands in fiscal 2018 for education and Head Start, the federal program providing early childhood education, health and nutrition for children in low-income families.
Earlier this month, Sanders said his bill would prevent closures of public schools in the 10 percent of Puerto Rico still without power, particularly in the mountainous and rural areas. Some may not get back power until late May, he said.
Sanders said that some Puerto Rican lawmakers’ recommendation to close up to 3,000 public schools and let private schools step in would mean less focus on the well-being of students. Sanders urged Congress to allocate more funds to keep public schools up and running.
“Beyond rebuilding damaged facilities, [the Equitable Rebuild Act] makes a major investment in elementary, secondary and higher educations,” Sanders said. “It would reject efforts to privatize those services.”
Eric Waldo, Executive Director of Michelle Obama’s Reach Higher Initiative, said some plans to rebuild the education system mirror high-functioning school structures that have succeeded on the mainland. One plan proposed by Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló would establish charter schools for high-performing students and track student and teacher achievement data. The governor also promised to raise teacher salaries by $1,500.
Waldo opposed Rosselló,’s proposal to allow parents to use vouchers to enroll their children in public or private schools that they prefer to their district’s public school. Vouchers are “ineffective in narrowing the achievement gap for students,” he said.