Report: Puerto Rico saw 44% drop in students since ’06

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Public and private school enrollment in Puerto Rico has dropped 44% since 2006, researchers announced Tuesday, leading to the closure of 265 schools and raising concerns that children will start to drop out.

Investigators with the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at New York’s Hunter College said that a disproportionate number of school closures - 65% - have come in rural areas on the economically struggling U.S. territory, compared with 35% in urban areas. The center’s director, Edwin Meléndez said the changes have led to cuts in school bus service and reduced access to primary school education.

“They have to travel longer distances. Many live with grandparents or single mothers where transportation isn’t available,” he said. “They’re going to have high desertion rates.”

The enrollment drop is mostly a result of a 12-year recession that has sparked an exodus of Puerto Ricans to the U.S. mainland in search of jobs and a more affordable cost of living. The exodus accelerated after Hurricane Maria, a Category 4 storm that hit in September 2017 and is blamed for an estimated 4% loss of the U.S. territory’s population.

Meléndez said schools often serve as an anchor for families, with education being a top factor in the debate of whether to leave the island of 3.1 million people.

“That’s one of the reasons families who have emigrated are not coming back,” he said of the closures. “The exodus and population loss has not ended.”

Meléndez said most of the closures involve primary and middle schools, noting that the number of children younger than 5 has decreased 42 percent since 2006. But he said he worries about young children who remain in Puerto Rico and the increased difficulties they face in finding a school near their home.

A separate study by the U.S. nonprofit Lumina Foundation found that Puerto Rico college enrollment decreased by 7% over the past three years, but that degree completion is higher on the island than in the U.S. mainland. It is the first time the study includes statistics on Puerto Rico.

Courtney Brown, Lumina’s vice president of strategic impact, said Puerto Rico’s government also should start thinking about its adult population and how it can contribute to the economy.

“They have talent, too,” she said. “Puerto Rico has a number of challenges ... (The) human capital issue is just as urgent.”

The reports were released a month after Puerto Rico education secretary Julia Keleher resigned amid criticism of school closures and other concerns. A new interim secretary has promised to create charter schools and vouchers as ordered by the governor as part of a plan to overhaul the island’s public education system.