SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Over the last few years, Puerto Rico has suffered under the crippling weight of a large debt. Puerto Rico’s debt constitutes more than $70 billion in bond obligations and $50 billion in unpaid pensions. These numbers represent approximately 70 percent of Puerto Rico’s gross domestic product. Such startlingly high debt is uncommon for states in the U.S., whose typical debt represents 17 percent of their GDP. Puerto Rico’s debt has influenced more than 450,000 people to leave the state.
In an attempt to stabilize its economy, the Puerto Rican government has been instituting budget cuts. Schools are one targeted area. About 179 schools were projected to shut down by the end of May 2017. Shutting down the schools would save the government more than $7 million. The 27,000 students affected by these school closures would be moved to different schools.
Julia Keleher, Puerto Rico’s education secretary, said that the decision to shut down schools is a consequence of an already failing education system. “We’ve spent 10 years handing out nearly $3 billion in a system that hardly has any books,” she said.
Responses to the school closures have been mixed. Some maintain that the process was organized well and is a necessity for poor schools with unsafe infrastructures. Others worry about the effects that switching schools will have on children, particularly those forced to switch schools more than once. The logistics of having to travel further are of concern as well, particularly by parents of children who are differently abled.
Numerous governments, at various times in history, have targeted their education budget as a debt reduction tool. Since the 2008 recession, education budgets have been decreasing. And, budget cuts proposed by the Trump administration would decrease funding to the Department of Education. Viewing cuts to education through the lens of poverty makes it more compelling.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 46.2 percent of Puerto Ricans live below the poverty line. This vividly contrasts the 14.8 percent of individuals living below the line in the U.S. Given that poverty consists of a lack of access to available resources (education, healthcare, etc.), as well as a lack of access to food, water, and shelter, spending cuts to education are concerning.
The shutdown of school’s in Puerto Rico, combined with its struggling economy and high poverty rates, makes it a breeding ground for cyclical poverty. To break out of this debilitating cycle, Puerto Rico must improve its education system, stabilize the economy, and increase employment opportunities.
The U.S. seeks to help reduce Puerto Rico’s debt by providing financial support. Aid to Puerto Rico was discussed as recently as April in congressional discussions about next year’s budget.
– Rebeca Ilisoi