San Juan, Puerto Rico—Today, three families asked a Puerto Rican trial court to allow them to join in the legal defense of Puerto Rico’s Free School Selection Program. The Program allows families with children currently in public school to apply for scholarships to send their children to the school of their choice. The Program is in jeopardy after a teachers’ union, the Asociación de Maestros de Puerto Rico, brought a constitutional challenge against the Program in April.
The Puerto Rican government enacted the Program as part of its Education Reform Act, passed last March in response to a crisis in the Island’s public schools. In the last few years, the schools have suffered from a depressed economy, decreasing population, dismal test scores, and, most recently, Hurricanes Irma and Maria. Parents have become increasingly frustrated and hopeless, feeling there are no real options to provide a good education for their children. The Program is designed to change that.
The families are represented by local attorney Salvador Antonetti, former solicitor general of Puerto Rico. His co-counsel is the Institute for Justice (IJ), a national nonprofit firm with expertise in the constitutionality of school choice programs. IJ has represented parents and children in over 20 cases across the United States, including twice at the U.S. Supreme Court.
“Right now, this is a fight between the government and the teachers’ unions, but it is students who will suffer if the Free School Selection Program is eliminated,” said Erica Smith, an attorney with IJ. “We are proud to support families who need these scholarships, and we will fight to ensure that they have a voice.”
Families can begin applying for program scholarships this year, which can be used to attend private school or a public school in a different neighborhood. Students who have been enrolled in a public school for at least two years are eligible, and the program is capped at approximately 9,600 students in its first year. The program prioritizes students who are low-income, disabled, adopted or in foster homes, victims of bullying or sexual harassment, gifted, or falling behind in their education.
According to the teachers’ union, the Program violates Article II, Section 5, of the Puerto Rico Constitution, which prohibits public funds from being used “for the support of schools or educational institutions other than those of the state.” As the parents intend to argue, however, any benefit to private schools under the program is merely incidental; the Program is designed to “support” families, not schools, and is entirely constitutional.