January 2020
  • EduClips: Florida Scraps Common Core, Puerto Rico Struggles to Open Schools After Quakes, NYC Now Spending $28,000 Per Student & More Education News You Missed From America’s Top Districts

    By Laura Fay | January 30, 2020

    EduClips is a roundup of the week’s top education headlines from America’s 15 largest school districts, where more than 4 million students across 10 states attend class every day. Read previous EduClips installments here.

    FLORIDA — Governor Scraps Common Core, Announces New Florida School Standards: Gov. Ron DeSantis promised to unveil new academic standards for Florida students soon. Known as the BEST Standards — for Benchmarks for Excellent Student Thinking — the new guidelines are meant to “go back to the basics” of math instruction and will include American history and civics content at every grade level, report Emily L. Mahoney and Jeffrey S. Solochek for the Tampa Bay Times. “It goes beyond Common Core to embrace common sense,” DeSantis said. (Read at the Tampa Bay Times)

    PUERTO RICOPuerto Rico Opens Only 1 in 5 of Schools Three Weeks After Strong Earthquake: “Puerto Rico opened only 20 percent of its public schools on Tuesday following a strong earthquake that delayed the start of classes by nearly three weeks as fears linger over the safety of students,” the Associated Press reported this week. Just 177 schools have been able to reopen since the Jan. 7 quake. Engineers found at least 50 that were too unsafe to reopen, leaving about 240,000 students out of school. Another 51 schools are slated to reopen Feb. 3. “Experts say that some 500 public schools in Puerto Rico were built before 1987 and don’t meet new construction codes,” and the fixes are estimated to cost up to $2.5 billion, the AP reports. (Read at Time)

    ILLINOIS — Can Chicago Design a Better School Ratings System? Principals, Parents and Teachers Think So: Money, school environment and pressure around test scores were a few of the things that parents, educators and community members discussed at a recent meeting about Chicago’s school ratings system. The district implemented changes to the system in 2019 and now appears to be seeking community input to improve the system further. Critics including Chicago’s teachers union say the current system relies too heavily on test scores and attendance. “Exactly what the school board plans to do with what it learns from its meeting isn’t quite clear — the district is also trying to drum up participation in a citywide survey on the topic and said there would be future public discussions — but members said they would weigh what they heard,” reports Cassie Walker Burke for Chalkbeat. (Read at Chalkbeat)

    NEW YORK — NYC Spends a Record $28K Per Student, but the State Is Footing a Smaller Portion of That Bill: Gov. Andrew Cuomo has touted New York’s “record-high spending on education during his administration,” but the state has been paying a smaller portion of the bill for New York City schools, reports Reema Amin for Chalkbeat. A new report shows that New York City has been paying a higher share of school funding while the share paid by the state has fallen by more than 11 percentage points in the past 30 years, according to a new report by the city’s Independent Budget Office. (Read at Chalkbeat)

    TEXAS New Standards for Charter Schools Likely to Be Adopted by State Education Agency: The Texas Education Agency is expected to approve new standards for charter schools this spring. The new scoring system would have three tiers and evaluate schools on academics, finances and compliance with state rules and regulations. Under the new system, it will be easier for networks in the top tier to open new schools, reports Phil Prazan for Austin station KXAN. Opponents say encouraging charter school expansion comes at the expense of traditional district schools, which could see enrollment decline as a result. (Read at KXAN)

    CALIFORNIA — Children’s Mental Health a Cause for Concern in Report on California Youth Policies: A new report issued by the Oakland-based nonprofit Children Now gives California a grade of C- for its care of children and young people. The state received a failing grade for youth mental health because of its high ratios of students to counselors, psychologists, social workers and nurses at schools and high rates of depression and mental health hospitalizations among students, reports Carolyn Jones for EdSource. Children Now also pointed out some bright spots, including growth in the share of children who have health insurance and declining suspension rates at the state’s schools. (Read at EdSource)

    Noteworthy Opinion & Analysis

    STUDENT VOICE — I’m a Student-Activist. Stop Turning Us Into Props (Read at Education Week)

    FUNDING — Blue States Are Burying Damning Data About School Funds. Red States Are, Too (Read at The New York Times)

    STUDENT HEALTH — Why are school nurses disappearing? (Read at Good Housekeeping)

    STANDARDS — People Keep on Saying They’re Killing the Common Core. How Dead Is It? (Read at Education Week)

    RESEARCH — High School GPAs Are Stronger Predictors of College Graduation than ACT Scores (Read at Inside Higher Ed, AERA)

    What Else We’re Reading

    IMMIGRATION — The Cheer Team Caught Between Two Worlds (Read at The Marshall Project)

    IOWA — Teen Voters Could Swing the Outcome of the Iowa Caucuses (Read at Teen Vogue, Education Week)

    MIDDLE SCHOOL — The Outsize Influence of Your Middle-School Friends (Read at The Atlantic)

    HIGH SCHOOL — High School Starts at 3 p.m. for These Michigan Students (Read at NPR)

    HIGHER ED — Look Who’s Talking About Canceling Debt: How a Fringe Idea Went Mainstream (Read at The Chronicle of Higher Education)


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  • Do Parents Actually Want Their Kids in Integrated Schools? New Harvard Survey Reveals Mixed Messages

    By Mark Keierleber | January 29, 2020

    Correction appended February 4

    As schools across the country remain starkly segregated by both race and income, parents expressed widespread support — in theory — for integrating America’s public schools, according to a new report. For many, however, that support appears to stop at their own doorstep.

    Across America’s increasingly partisan political divide, parents say they support racial and economic integration in schools and would prefer to send their kids to diverse campuses, according to a Harvard University report released on Wednesday. But when parents actually weigh school choices for their own children, that support often takes a back seat to other issues. School quality and safety are often more important for parents than integration, researchers found.

    Parents “care about integration, but they don’t care about it very much,” said report co-author Richard Weissbourd, a senior lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Other factors and their own biases, he said, deter many parents from choosing integrated schools. Weissbourd said parents should walk the walk on integration when selecting schools, noting a body of research that points to positive academic effects.


    12 Things to Know About **School Segregation** — and How Integration Helps Students

    Integration “is likely to be good for your own children and other people’s children and the country as a whole,” he said. “Parents and schools really need to step up here because it’s unlikely it’s going to happen through the legal system.”

    In a computer-based survey of 2,644 American parents from across the country, 85 percent of women and 77 percent of men said they support racially integrated schools. At least half of respondents from all racial groups said they supported integration, though black parents were most in favor, at 68 percent. Support also cut across political parties; 85 percent of Democrats and 76 percent of Republicans affirmed support for racially integrated schools.

    But there’s also an interesting election tie-in: Researchers conducted parent surveys before and after President Donald Trump was elected in 2016, and support for racial integration spiked among Democrats after his inauguration, with respondents saying the political climate strengthened their support. Racial overtones in the election likely contributed to the change, Weissbourd said. As leading Democratic candidates promise to address school segregation in their 2020 education platforms, Weissbourd said they should remind parents that combating segregation is a collective responsibility.

    The study found that parent support for economic integration was also high, though less profound than it was for racial diversity. Efforts to promote integration also found support, with roughly two-thirds of respondents in favor of district initiatives to achieve racial and socioeconomic diversity — efforts a majority of parents said would benefit both white students and children of color. On average, parents gave the most support to schools that are equally distributed racially and economically.

    Despite that overwhelming support, however, school segregation persists. For example, about 40 percent of black and Latino children attend schools where students of color comprise between 90 and 100 percent of the student population. More than 65 years after the Supreme Court found school segregation unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education, multiple decisions from the High Court have minimized district obligations to combat segregation.

    In the survey, and in telephone interviews and focus groups with parents, researchers found multiple factors that could explain the dichotomy between parents’ stated views and actions. When selecting a school, 81 percent of parents said academic quality is a leading factor, and 70 percent said the same about school safety. Just 10 percent of parents picked racial and economic diversity as a top consideration when actually choosing a school in which to enroll their children.

    Their concerns may be warranted, the report notes, since schools with large shares of students of color and those from low-income households tend to have fewer resources and less-experienced teachers. But parents’ information on schools is frequently inadequate, according to the report. Parents often rely on school report cards in both school and residential decisions, though they offer an incomplete picture of school quality, Weissbourd said. Parents also tend to mimic the decisions of those in their social circles, he said, and white advantaged parents often wind up clustered together. Meanwhile, a single episode of violence or bullying at a school can create long-term negative perceptions.

    The report urges parents to do more research when picking schools, including campus visits, and to put a greater emphasis on racially and socioeconomically integrated campuses. Those decisions, the report argues, come with stark consequences for communities.

    “It might seem that schools are unaffected by individual enrollment decisions,” according to the report, but “the collective impact of those decisions has been a large factor in barricading millions of Americans into marginalization and poverty and deepening the country’s cultural, racial and economic fractures.”

    Correction: Based on subsequent information provided by researchers, this story has been updated to reflect that after Donald Trump’s inauguration in 2016, support for racial integration in schools spiked among Democrats. 


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  • Listen Up, Candidates: Most Teachers Feel Their Voices Aren’t Being Heard, New Survey Reveals

    By Mark Keierleber | January 22, 2020

    As the Democratic presidential hopefuls release campaign promises to woo America’s K-12 educators — a key voting bloc — teachers feel left in the dark on major policy conversations, a new survey revealed.

    Just a third of educators said their perspectives are considered a “great deal” in teachers union policy decisions, and the numbers fall sharply from there. Only 15 percent of teachers said their voices are sufficiently heard by state policymakers, and 12 percent said the same at the federal level, according to a nationally representative survey released Wednesday by the nonprofit Educators for Excellence.

    Similarly, just 48 percent of teachers said school administrators seek their input at least monthly, while fewer than a quarter said the same about state and federal education leaders. Yet nearly all teachers — 95 percent — said they want more opportunities to influence education policy.

    The results follow a wave of teacher activism nationally over issues including pay, education funding and school choice. In many cases, teacher walkouts led to tangible policy changes, including increased school funding. The survey touched on a range of high-profile topics that have dominated both teacher activism and the presidential candidates’ talking points.

    The upcoming election provides an opportunity for policymakers “to address what is preventing our students from reaching their full potential and us, as teachers, from thriving in our careers,” according to the survey. “We don’t need tweaks; we need meaningful change.”

    Teachers likely feel underrepresented in policy conversations because they’re isolated in classrooms as policies evolve around them, Evan Stone, an Educators for Excellence co-founder and co-CEO, said on a call with reporters.

    “It’s a challenge that doesn’t have an easy solution but is one the teachers are clearly feeling,” Stone said. But he did point to one potential solution on the local level: Officials could do a better job of including teachers’ perspectives when selecting a curriculum. Currently, just 27 percent of educators say they have a say in curriculum decisions, according to the survey.

    Courtesy Educators for Excellence

    To Charles Beavers, an instructional support leader at Chicago Public Schools, inequities in America’s education system have reached a “national inflection point,” he told The 74. In cities across the U.S., teachers have hit the streets to demand equitable opportunities for students, he said, but “this is not a local issue anymore. This is a national issue.” Beavers, an Educators for Excellence member who helped craft the teacher questionnaire, participated in Chicago’s 11-day teacher walkout in October.

    But teachers don’t feel particularly optimistic. Nearly three-quarters reported they do not feel valued, and only about half said they are “very likely” to spend their entire careers in the classroom.

    The online survey, administered by Gotham Research Group, was conducted in November and included a nationally representative sample of 1,000 full-time public school teachers. Researchers conducted a supplementary survey in December with an additional 500 educators.

    In order to bring educators’ voices to the forefront of policy conversations, there needs to be “a concerted, organized effort” on the local and national levels, Beavers said.

    “It’s not going to happen just by hoping and wishing,” he said. “Folks have to hit the streets, which we’ve seen people doing over the last four years. We’ve seen folks in the streets, we’ve seen folks advocating for their kids and themselves and for professional respect and fair compensation.”

    Issues on teachers’ minds

    On the campaign trail, Democratic candidates have elevated teacher salaries as a leading education issue. They’re on the right track, according to the survey. When asked what would keep teachers in their job for the rest of their careers, the answer was simple: better pay.

    In fact, more than two-thirds of teachers reported they’ve worked a second job to pay their bills. In order to score bigger paychecks, teachers expressed a willingness to make sacrifices. Two-thirds said they’re willing to trade in tenure for better pay or more benefits.

    The survey also revealed that teachers are open to merit-based pay, an incentive that’s controversial in policy circles. About two-thirds of teachers said they would consider trading guaranteed small raises for the opportunity to earn significantly more based on their classroom performance. An even larger share — more than three-quarters — support financial incentives for educators who work in high-needs schools, take on leadership roles or teach hard-to-staff subjects like special education.

    Courtesy Educators for Excellence

    Teachers’ bottom line is far from the only issue on their minds, however. The survey also touched on several high-profile policy debates, including student safety and school choice.

    As school shootings drive heated debates over gun policies and school security, more than a third of educators said they fear for their own physical safety at school at least sometimes. But fights among students — not mass school shootings — were the biggest safety concern among respondents.

    School choice, including charter schools and private school vouchers, has become a thorny topic among Democrats, with the leading presidential contenders taking a hard turn away from these options. Teachers are similarly skeptical, the survey revealed. Only about one-third support charter schools or vouchers for students from low-income households. However, there are gradations: 65 percent said they’re open to school choice if it doesn’t shift funding away from public schools, and 55 percent said the same if it improves academic achievement among low-income kids. Just 4 percent of teachers said they oppose all forms of school choice.

    For Beavers, teacher recruitment and retention is top of mind. Others seem to agree, according to the survey, with just 12 percent reporting that educator preparation programs train prospective teachers “very well” for the realities of the classroom and 21 percent reporting that the professional development at their school was “very effective” at improving their skills.

    “The data show that we need to rethink how we’re recruiting teachers and what we’re doing to make sure that those folks who are qualified and are making a difference day in and day out stay in the classroom,” Beavers said.

    Beyond their own well-being, teachers overwhelmingly said resources are a problem in their schools, which are often unable to meet the needs of many students. Nearly 70 percent reported that school funding is inequitable, while classroom supplies and resources are insufficient in schools that serve high-needs students. Unsurprisingly, early-career teachers and educators of color — who are more likely to work on campuses with scores of low-income children — were more likely to report resource inequities.

    Courtesy Educators for Excellence

    While 48 percent of educators said their schools “often” meet the needs of pupils performing at grade level, just 29 percent said the same about children performing below grade level. In one of the bleakest findings, just 24 percent said their schools often meet the needs of students who have experienced trauma. Similarly, only 41 percent of teachers said their schools “often” provide welcoming and inclusive environments for LGBTQ students.

    Though the survey revealed that teachers often feel ignored in policy conversations, presidential candidates should focus the bulk of their energy on improving conditions for students, Beavers said. Efforts to create a more equitable education funding model should take center stage.

    “The disparities are so huge,” he said. “Even going from schools within one mile from one another, it’s night and day. We’ve really got to put this focus on equity and making sure that all kids get what they need.”


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  • Haves and Have-Nots: The Borders Between School Districts Often Mark Extreme Economic Segregation. A New Report Outlines America’s 50 Worst Cases

    By Mark Keierleber | January 22, 2020

    This is the latest in The 74’s ongoing ‘Big Picture’ series, bringing education into focus through new research and data. See our full series.

    The Rust Belt city of Rochester in western New York has the most economically segregating school district border in the country, walling off the high-poverty education system from its affluent neighbors next door, a new report has found.

    About half the children in Rochester live in poverty, and many of them struggle to get adequate food, health care and housing, according to the report, released Wednesday by the nonprofit EdBuild. In Penfield, a Rochester suburb, the student poverty rate hovers in the single digits, and children fare much better.

    “It is a steep challenge for the Rochester schools to serve such a large proportion of these high-needs students,” according to the report. “But Penfield, just next door, has a student poverty rate that mirrors the tony ski town of Aspen, Colorado.”

    The report highlights America’s 50 most segregating school district borders, which researchers say divide communities into haves and have-nots. In the EdBuild analysis, the nation’s most segregated school district borders cluster in the Deep South and along the Rust Belt in the North. On average, poverty rates among school-age children are 30 percentage points higher in school districts on the wrong side of the border. Meanwhile, the average annual household income between impoverished districts and their more affluent next-door neighbors differs by $43,000.

    The concentration of poverty in Rocheseter is “a systemic crisis,” said Rev. Lynette Sparks, the acting head of staff at the Third Presbyterian Church in Rochester. Sparks is a founding member of Great Schools for All, a local nonprofit that promotes voluntary integration between Rochester and its suburban school districts. In Rochester, she said, “It’s as if you’ve got 100-foot brick walls between every single district that these kids can’t leap over.”

    In communities across the country, school district funding is largely dependent on local property taxes, incentivizing communities to maintain narrow school district borders that uphold economic segregation. In fact, the issue is generally worse in states where school district lines are drawn around individual towns, said Zahava Stadler, EdBuild’s policy director. As a result, a school system can find itself in a tough spot if the community’s local economy falters. Theoretically, the district borders “could be redrawn in ways that diminish segregation if somebody were to take up that mantle,” Stadler said.

    Nearly half of students in Rochester, New York, live in poverty, compared with just 5 percent of children in neighboring Penfield. (Courtesy EdBuild)

    Though the report focuses on economic segregation, it also observed racial disparities in many districts. On average, white student enrollment is 55 percentage points higher in the affluent school systems. Just 10 percent of students in Rochester are white, compared with 84 percent in Penfield.

    EdBuild previously released a similar report based on student poverty data from 2014, as communities across the country were still feeling the lingering effects of the recent recession. Although much of the country has rebounded and the national student poverty rate has declined a few percentage points, many communities remain strapped by downturns in their local economies. The earlier report found that the school district border separating Detroit from Grosse Pointe in Michigan was the nation’s most segregating, but districts at the top of EdBuild’s lists both years generally fell within a few percentage points of one another.

    The new report measures economic segregation along school district borders by comparing child poverty rates in 2017 between neighboring cities. Communities that struggled prior to the recession remain in trouble today, researchers found.


    Segregated Classrooms in Segregated Neighborhoods: New Report Argues That Efforts to Integrate Schools Must Also Address Our Divided Cities

    Such a situation continues to play out in Rochester, where efforts to promote education equity between the city and its suburban neighbors have floundered. In fact, Rochester is “a poster child for isolation,” Stadler said, sharing borders with five school districts that EdBuild ranks in the nation’s top 50 most economically segregating.

    “Rochester is surrounded by better-off districts,” Stadler said. “Every single one of its neighbors has a lower poverty rate than it does. To say, ‘There’s nothing that can be done,’ is patently false. There are resources in the area that could be tapped for Rochester’s schools if we just thought differently about how those school districts should be organized.”

    ‘Poster child’

    In Rochester, residents have been grappling with segregated school district lines for about a century. In 1929, officials proposed a countywide school district in the area, but suburban residents rejected the proposal, and school district lines that match city limits remain intact today.

    As black residents flocked to Rochester in the 1950s and ’60s for jobs at industrial giants like Kodak and Xerox, officials in neighboring Penfield took steps to shelter its affluence. White residents fled to the suburbs and Penfield adopted “exclusionary zoning” rules to limit development to single-family homes and opposed more affordable housing options, according to the report.


    Next Door but Worlds Apart: School District Borders Segregate Millions of Kids Based on Race and Revenue, Report Finds

    In Warth v. Seldin, a case that came before the Supreme Court in 1975, low-income Rochester residents lost their battle against Penfield’s exclusionary zoning practices. The court ruled that the Rochester residents lacked standing to sue, even if Penfield’s housing policies effectively gated it off from low-income residents.

    “Our school finance system, with its heavy reliance on local property taxes, gives every wealthy community an incentive to do what Penfield did,” according to the report. “First, turn down proposals for a wider, more inclusive school district and then, keep the walls up, property values high, local dollars in, and needy kids out.”

    Similar to many cities in the Rust Belt, industrial jobs in Rochester dried up and economic hardship ensued.


    Persistently Struggling: Lovely Warren’s Audacious Plan to Save the Distressed Schools of Rochester, NY

    Despite the division between Rochester’s schools and those in the suburbs, there are efforts underway to close the gap. Under an urban-suburban student transfer program, students of color from Rochester can voluntarily transfer to participating suburban districts. But an initiative to attract suburban students to Rochester schools, funded through a $1.2 million state grant, was deemed by many to be a failure. Under the program, just 10 suburban preschoolers attended class at a Rochester campus.

    For decades, officials in the community have scoffed at the idea of combining the Rochester school district with its suburban neighbors. There’s a perception among some parents that their children will underperform if they attend the city’s struggling schools, Sparks said. But because of concentrated poverty, the city can’t address the issue on its own. That’s why a broader community effort, which encompasses the city and its suburbs, is vital, she said. But “when push comes to shove,” she added, parents tend to focus narrowly on their own children rather than on community improvement.

    “They’ve never treated it like a community problem,” she said, but “the truth is, we all bear responsibility.”

    While 60 percent of Rochester residents support a countywide school district, just 49 percent of suburban residents agree, according to a 2018 survey by the Democrat and Chronicle newspaper.

    “People are, in a sense, trapped in a mindset that however their school district is drawn is the way that school districts work,” Stadler said. But with political courage, she said, state lawmakers could redraw school district borders in a way that promotes economic and racial integration.

    The fault lines

    Beyond Rochester, EdBuild researchers found that the problem is largely concentrated in a few states. New York, for example, is home to nine of the country’s 50 most economically segregating school district borders.

    But the worst state offender, according to EdBuild, is Ohio, home to 17 of the country’s most egregious borders. Communities in that state share similarities with Rochester: As the economies in metropolitan areas faltered, school district borders “served to quarantine their misfortune” and allowed neighboring suburban districts to escape the economic fallout.

    Youngstown, once a prominent steel town, shares the nation’s second- and third-most segregating borders with neighboring communities Canfield and Poland. While 47 percent of Youngstown children live in poverty, just 6 percent of those in Canfield and 7 percent in Poland have similar economic realities.

    “There are a few states that might take a hint from the fact that their districts appear repeatedly,” Stadler said. “Ohio always lights up like a Christmas tree when you look at the problems created by school district borders.”

    Outside the Rust Belt, EdBuild found a cluster of segregated borders along the Deep South’s “black belt,” a region originally named for the rural area’s dark, fertile farmland. A district line separating the Claiborne County School District in Mississippi from those in Hinds County is the south’s most segregating, researchers found.


    When Communities Secede From School Districts, Inequity & Segregation Follow. But 30 States Let It Happen Anyway

    To politicians interested in improving conditions, EdBuild researchers point to several anecdotal successes. In Vermont, for example, schools are funded through a state property tax and, as such, local property values don’t define the level of funding school districts receive. And in North Carolina, school districts are drawn at the county level. School districts that are geographically larger, EdBuild found, are generally less segregated. Such decisions are in the hands of state lawmakers who draw school district borders.

    “The educational outlook for the children trapped behind arbitrary borders — just a few feet away from much better opportunity — is not dependent on local economies,” according to the report. “Rather, their future is dependent on political bravery.”


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  • Take Two: Julia Keleher, Former Puerto Rico Education Secretary, Indicted in Second Round of Corruption Charges

    By Mark Keierleber | January 15, 2020

    Julia Keleher, Puerto Rico’s former education secretary, has been indicted on federal charges alleging that she offered up public school land in exchange for help buying a luxury apartment, officials announced Wednesday. It’s the second time in six months that federal law enforcement officials have accused Keleher of public corruption.

    Keleher, who became Puerto Rico’s top public schools official with goals of reforming the island’s lackluster education system, faces as many as 30 years in prison in connection with the alleged bribery and fraud scheme, according to the federal indictment.

    Keleher is accused of giving 1,034 square feet of space at the public school Padre Rufo to a real estate company that owns the ritzy Ciudadela apartment complex, located a block away in San Juan. In return, Keleher was allowed to rent an apartment in Ciudadela from June to December 2018 for just $1, though an agreement valued the monthly rent at $1,500, the indictment said. Under the alleged scheme, Keleher ultimately bought a two-bedroom at Ciudadela for $295,000 and received a $12,000 incentive bonus. Also indicted was Ariel Gutiérrez-Rodríguez, a consultant who federal officials say helped facilitate the lease agreement with Keleher.

    New charges against Keleher include bribery, wire fraud and conspiracy to commit honest services fraud. Keleher faces up to 10 years in prison for conspiracy and federal program bribery and 20 years for wire fraud.

    “Public corruption continues to erode the trust between government officials and our citizens,” W. Stephen Muldrow, U.S. attorney for the district of Puerto Rico, said in a media release. “Government officials are entrusted with performing their duties honestly and ethically. When they fail to do so, they will be held to account.”

    Neither Keleher nor her attorney responded to telephone calls requesting comment on the new charges.


    Complicated Crusader to Accused Federal Conspirator: Ex-Puerto Rico Education Secretary Julia Keleher’s ‘Surreal’ Journey

    Keleher was Puerto Rico’s education secretary from January 2017 until her resignation last April. Less than a year into the job, Puerto Rico’s schools were devastated by Hurricane Maria, a tragedy Keleher seized upon to close hundreds of schools and usher in new education reforms, including charter schools and private school vouchers. As secretary, Keleher received an unusually high salary of $250,000 a year. Prior to the indictments, Keleher consistently portrayed herself as a crusader against widespread corruption within Puerto Rico’s education department.

    Coincidentally, the latest federal charges against Keleher come amid a new crisis: Puerto Rico’s public schools are currently closed after a series of earthquakes shook the island.


    Exclusive: Ex-Puerto Rico Schools Chief Julia Keleher, Indicted in Corruption Probe, Previously Denied She Was Federal Target

    In July 2019, Keleher was indicted on federal allegations that she participated in a conspiracy to steer more than $15 million in government contracts to unqualified, politically connected businesses. Five others were also indicted in that alleged corruption, including the former director of the island’s health insurance administration and an executive at a major accounting firm that worked on some of Keleher’s more ambitious reform efforts.

    The previous charges were announced shortly before Keleher’s former boss, former governor Ricardo Rosselló, resigned amid his own public scandal. Unlike the new charges, Keleher’s previous indictment didn’t accuse her of benefiting personally.

    Court documents filed by Keleher’s attorneys in that case depict her as a uniquely polarizing figure. In a motion last month, Keleher asked a judge to move her trial to a courtroom off the island. Widespread media coverage and public awareness of her indictment, Keleher argued, prevents her from receiving an impartial jury. “The volume of negative publicity coupled with the charged political atmosphere has created considerable widespread bias against” Keleher, the motion said.

    In a separate filing, Keleher asked the judge to lift a gag order that barred Keleher, her attorneys and others from discussing the case with reporters.

    After living in an upscale Washington, D.C., neighborhood following her resignation in Puerto Rico, court documents from August indicate, she moved in with her parents in Pennsylvania. Last month, communications specialist Andy Plattner sent out an email requesting that people chip in to pay for Keleher’s defense.

    “She’s had to sell her home, move in with her parents and work in a retail store while her lawyers prepare her case for trial,” Plattner wrote in the email. “She’s put the proceeds from her home, her life savings and her retirement account into her legal fees and that will not be near enough.”


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