This summer, the Institute for Justice deployed to Puerto Rico to defend a new educational choice program that has the potential to give tens of thousands of children a better life.
Puerto Rican children need help. Their public schools are currently struggling under the weight of persistent violence, demoralized teachers, and, most recently, Hurricanes Irma and Maria. Only 7 percent of high school students are proficient in math, and less than half are proficient in reading. Families have become increasingly frustrated and hopeless, feeling there are no real options to provide a good education for their children. Thousands have even come to the mainland, trying to find better options.
Recognizing these problems, the Puerto Rican government enacted the Free School Selection Program in March. The program will provide 10,000 scholarships a year so that parents can send their children to the private or public school of their choice. The program prioritizes several categories of needy students, such as those who are low income, disabled, gifted, victims of bullying, adopted, or in foster care.
Almost immediately after the program passed, the local teachers’ union challenged it as unconstitutional. IJ jumped into action.
Part of being an IJ attorney is persevering in the face of adversity. But although we always expect challenges in court, ensuring that families in Puerto Rico have a voice in defending their educational choice program meant confronting a whole new set of hurdles: overcoming language and cultural barriers, navigating unfamiliar terrain that was often in disrepair, and building new relationships with the island’s leading educational reformers. But our efforts paid off in July, when the Puerto Rico Supreme Court agreed to hear the case on an accelerated schedule—just days after the families we represent were made official parties in the case.
These families demonstrate the huge real-world benefits the program can provide to Puerto Rico’s schoolchildren. One of our clients is Jennifer González Muñoz, whose 6-year-old son, Jacob, suffers from a speech disability and persistent bullying by his classmates. Jennifer desperately wants to send Jacob to a private school, but she cannot afford it with her job making sandwiches and her husband’s job as a delivery driver. Another client is Jessica Ñeco, whose daughter, Saadia, is gifted and needs a private school supplemented with university classes to thrive academically. With a scholarship from the program, Saadia can reach her potential.
But these families, and thousands like them, will never receive these scholarships if the union wins. The union claims the program violates the Puerto Rico Constitution’s prohibition against using public funds “for the support” of private schools. That claim relies on a 1994 Puerto Rico Supreme Court case that struck down a voucher program defended by IJ in the earliest days of our educational choice work.
Since that decision, however, the legal landscape has changed dramatically. Due to the path IJ has blazed over the last 24 years, nine state supreme courts and the U.S. Supreme Court have ruled that choice supports families, not schools. In addition, we have unearthed evidence showing that the original drafters of the Puerto Rico Constitution actually intended to allow scholarships that would permit children and college students to attend private schools.
In other words, the Puerto Rico Supreme Court now has ample grounds to overrule its earlier opinion. IJ won’t stop fighting until we win and give thousands of Puerto Rican children the opportunities that come with the freedom to choose the school that is right for them.