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Puerto Rico governor announces public education overhaul

(Reuters) - Puerto Rico’s governor said his administration will unveil a broad education reform bill on Tuesday aimed at incorporating school vouchers and charter schools into the bankrupt U.S. territory’s education system.

FILE PHOTO: Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello speaks during a Facebook live broadcast in the library of the governor's mansion, in San Juan, Puerto Rico January 24, 2018. REUTERS/Alvin Baez

Speaking in a televised address on Monday, Governor Ricardo Rossello also said every public school teacher in Puerto Rico would receive a $1,500 annual salary increase beginning next school year. It was unclear whether the pay bump would require legislation.

The governor’s remarks came 10 days after the island’s education secretary, Julia Keleher, said she planned to decentralize Puerto Rico’s education department and introduce “autonomous schools.”

Public school reform is a touchy issue in the U.S. territory, where teachers make an average of about $27,000 a year.

But Puerto Rico, struggling simultaneously through the biggest government bankruptcy in U.S. history and the aftermath of September’s Hurricane Maria, its worst natural disaster in 90 years, is trying to embrace much-needed structural reforms.

Its public school system, organized as a single, island-wide district, is among the weakest in the United States and long plagued by bloated administrative spending. In some age groups, less than 10 percent of students meet federal testing standards.

Keleher, a former U.S. Department of Education official and private consultant, has worked with past Puerto Rican administrations on similar reform efforts that did not become law.

In a written statement following the address, Rossello said Puerto Rico has “students and teachers with extraordinary talent.”

“What we are lacking is a system that allows them to develop those talents,” he said.

The plan met with immediate scorn from the American Federation of Teachers, which represents 40,000 educators in Puerto Rico. AFT President Randi Weingarten told Reuters the plan “doesn’t add up,” saying salary bumps will do nothing without more investment in schools.

“There’s a lot of nice flowery language in here, but ... you can’t actually do the things [Rossello] is talking about doing and still divert resources from public schools,” Weingarten said.

The voucher program, projected to begin during the 2019-2020 school year, would allow parents to choose public or private school alternatives, but may face legal hurdles.

The Puerto Rico Supreme Court struck down a similar proposed voucher program in 1994, during the administration of Rossello’s father, former Governor Pedro Rossello, saying the island’s constitution prohibited using public money to fund privately-run schools.

Puerto Rico is facing a crippling $120 billion bond and pension debt load, and filed a form of bankruptcy last May.

Four months later, it was hit by successive hurricanes, the second of which, Maria, devastated the island’s outdated infrastructure, killed dozens, and damaged school buildings to the tune of $8.4 billion.

Reporting by a contributor in San Juan; writing by Nick Brown; Editing by Daniel Bases and Tom Brown