Puerto Rico crisis hits public education -- a way out for the poor


San Juan (AFP)

Beraliz Germocen still can't believe she won a scholarship to the University of Puerto Rico, but her dream school has been closed by weeks of student strikes, threatening her ticket out of poverty.

Beraliz, an outgoing 17-year-old with an infectious laugh, is worried she may lose her scholarship if classes don't resume in August, when the school year begins.

"It is time and perhaps money that I'll be losing but I have a lot of faith and a lot of passion for what these students are doing," she said.

Beraliz's personal dilemma is a small reflection of the calamitous fiscal crisis that is shaking bankrupt Puerto Rico's education system from top to bottom.

Not only has the flagship University of Puerto Rico had to retrench in the face of deep budget cuts, sparking the student protests, but dozens of schools educating younger students are now scheduled for closure.

The shrinkage is perhaps inevitable: the student population on the island, a US territory, has dwindled to nearly half what it was in the 1980s as a result of an out-migration of Puerto Ricans seeking better opportunities elsewhere.

Also gone are thousands of teachers, their salaries frozen since 2008, said Aida Diaz, head of the teachers' association.

Under a huge tree in the courtyard of the Jose Davila Semprit school, parents and teachers gathered recently to celebrate a small victory.

The school in the San Juan suburb of Bayamon was on the chopping block but at the last minute was saved.

Diaz was among those rejoicing.

"This island has no mines, it doesn't produce oil, its wealth is in its inhabitants," she said.

"If we don't educate our own population, we will kill this island."

- 'A problem of poverty' -

From Beraliz's perspective, the fiscal crisis is not a new phenomenon -- just an extension of the precariousness that poor Puerto Ricans have long lived with.

"I have been aware of it for years, for as long as I can remember," she says. "In Puerto Rico, there has always been a problem of poverty."

She lives in Residencial Luis Llorens Torres, a sprawling public housing complex where annual family incomes average $3,650 compared to an island average of $20,500.

Nearly half of the island's 3.5 million residents are below the poverty line, according to the US census.

The low-rise apartment buildings, with balconies enclosed in iron grills, border upscale Ocean Park and is just a short walk from its dazzling coconut-fringed beach, but is a world apart.

"My childhood was very tough. I had to grow up quickly," says Beraliz.

As she talks, a rooster scoots past her in a neighborhood known for crime and drug dealing.

Beraliz's mother, who is single, has been plagued by health problems, the teen says.

Beraliz polished her English watching MTV, and attended vocational school, earning a certificate in marketing. Now she wants to get a degree in human resources.

So winning a scholarship to go to the century-old University of Puerto Rico, with its imposing tower and manicured lawns, was a dream come true for Beraliz, one now clouded by the crisis.

Unlike many other Puerto Ricans, Beraliz has no interest in emigrating.

"My heart is here," she says. "I have a lot of faith that Puerto Rico can move forward."

- An opening for change? -

For some, the crisis is an opportunity to build a more inclusive local economy, one less dependent on big American companies, which once flocked to the island to take advantage of tax shelters, and then promptly left when the incentives were abolished in 2006.

"There is an opening for a different Puerto Rico," says Eduardo Carrera, president of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Puerto Rico, who says the existing economic model has left 57 percent of children in poverty.

Carrera believes greater focus should be on promoting job-generating small and medium-sized businesses, and investing in education.

That vision of the future seems like a reach, however, as spending on schools is cut and more and more Puerto Ricans pack their bags.