Puerto Rico opens first-ever charter school amid controversy

For the past few days, Ana Cabrera, 42, has been bringing her 5-year-old son to the Boys & Girls Club of Puerto Rico
building located deep in the Ernesto Ramos Antonini affordable housing complex in the community of Villa Padres, where
she lives.
During this time, Cabrera and her son have been taking part of the orientation process to officially join Puerto Rico's
first-ever charter school on Monday.

Cabrera's child is one of the 58 students joining Proyecto Vimenti, a kindergarten to 1st grade school run by the Boys &
Girls Clubs of Puerto Rico.
"For me, this is a unique opportunity," said Cabrera, a single mother who moved to the Ernesto Ramos Antonini housing
complex two years ago after losing her home of 13 years due to the island's economic crisis. "It was like God sent this
[opportunity] to me."

Education

Boys & Girls Club's Vimenti is the only charter school being put in place this semester as part of the island's education
reform law signed by Gov. Ricardo Rosselló in March. It was the first time Puerto Rico created a legal pathway to establish
charter schools in the island.

According to Eduardo Carrera, executive director of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Puerto Rico, the nonprofit had been
developing Proyecto Vimenti for two years. But with the education reform law in place, the nonprofit saw an opportunity to
bring the project to life.

"We are not creating a school to address the education reform [law]. This [project] is an attempt to break the generational
cycle of poverty," said Carrera in Spanish during a recent press conference.

Unlike the mainland U.S., the island's public education system mainly serves low-income communities; the majority of
middle-income and upper-income families use parochial or private schools. On average, 70 to 80 percent of the student
population at any given public school in the island live below the poverty line, according to numbers from the Puerto Rico
Institute of Statistics (PRIS).

Students under the poverty line are almost three times more likely to drop out of school than a student living in a household
above the poverty line.

Vimenti is the first of three schools the Boys & Girls Clubs of Puerto Rico hopes to establish in the island. They modeled
the school's curriculum after the curriculum of St. John's School, one of the island's most prestigious private schools. They
also added their already-established after school program to Vimenti's curriculum.

"We have a great project to start with the charter school model, which will be in the hands of a highly reputable entity at an
international level that has demonstrated a wide administrative capacity," said Puerto Rico's education secretary, Julia
Keleher, in a press release.

Controversies over education reform and charter schools
As part of the island's education reform process, officials closed over 250 public schools and implemented new online
systems to manage teachers' placements and student enrollments. All of these took place during the past months as families
grappled with the ripple effects of devastating Hurricane Maria.

Now, officials are moving forward with a plan to open several charter schools — a decision that has generated debate and
discussion.

Charter schools receive public and private funds in order to operate, and their financial and operational models have been
the center of many heated debates for decades. People who favor the model see charters as public schools because
enrollment is open to all students and there are no tuition costs. Critics argue that charter schools inject public funds into the
private sector, raising concerns over public accountability and potential labor issues.

For decades, one of the more vocal critics of charter schools in the island has been the Puerto Rico Teachers Association,
known by their Spanish acronym AMPR. The group warns against diverting funds from public schools; the island's Dept.
of Education is grappling with a $300 million shortfall.

"We have been battling the charters for many years, since the 90's and the 2000's. In all the past administrations, we had
been able to stop them," Aida Díaz, AMPR's president, told NBC News. "We would look for all the studies that have been
done regarding the operation of charter schools in the United States. That managed to convince the legislators that it wasn't
the best for Puerto Rico."

Though they did not succeed in their efforts this time around, AMPR was able to "introduce an amendment guaranteeing
that the charter schools that hire teachers who are part of the [Department of Education] registry have to honor the
acquired rights of the teachers, including salaries and everything they had previously," Díaz said.