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School-Voucher Fund Likely To Be Killed In Puerto Rico

by Ivan Roman

March 24, 2000
Copyright © 2000 THE ORLANDO SENTINEL. All Rights Reserved.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- In likely one of the last nails in the coffin of school vouchers here, a jury this week found a public employee was fired unfairly for refusing to contribute to a government-backed voucher fund.

The fund was designed to get around constitutional problems, which had been repeatedly highlighted by the courts.

While the legal tangle over school vouchers is just beginning in Florida courts, Puerto Rico has been down that road. Now, it seems, vouchers are all but dead.

The verdict in Rosangelica Acevedo's case against the former head of youth institutions shines the light on Gov. Pedro Rossello's years-long attempt to implement school vouchers for some of the island's 700,000 students.

Laws related to school vouchers have been struck down by courts at least three times since 1994. Two laws, including the one that created the fund in question in Acevedo's case, are still pending before the Puerto Rico Supreme Court.

"The state keeps looking for ways to get over the Supreme Court decision of 1994," said Rafael Nadal Arcelay, the lawyer representing the Puerto Rico Teachers Association in its lawsuits against school vouchers.

After the first school-voucher law approved in 1993 was ruled unconstitutional, the Legislature created the Educational Foundation for Free School Choice in 1995 to give the equivalent of vouchers. Individuals and private groups could donate, but the government also put in money.

The government carried out a United Way-style campaign in each agency. Managerial or so-called "trust" employees who serve at the pleasure of their bosses, usually considered to be political appointments, were insistently "asked" to donate $250.

Acevedo's former bosses testified they fired her in 1996 as director of a group home for troubled teens because she questioned their decisions. But Acevedo's lawyers said the timing -- and beeper messages telling her to cough up the money or submit her resignation -- made the motives clear.

"I think every public employee should feel free to donate to whoever they want to and shouldn't have to pay to be able to work," said Acevedo, who was awarded $135,000 for lost wages and emotional damages.

"Any money the government raises should be for the general public," she added. "I went to public schools, my daughter goes to public schools. If we gave that money to public schools instead of siphoning it off for private use, we'd have more excellent students than we have now."

Her bosses, who claimed they did not know she objected to the government's voucher plan when she was fired from the Juvenile Institutions Administration, called the verdict unfair.

"I didn't fire her because of that, but if the jury thought so because of circumstantial matters, we have to respect that," said Miguel Rivera, the agency's former administrator. A decision on whether to appeal is still pending.

So is the appeal before the Puerto Rico Supreme Court on the law that created the fund and the foundation in question. Paralyzed by court battles and debt, the foundation's offices are closed and its phones disconnected.

Rossello's attempts to create a school-voucher system were opposed by teacher associations and the political opposition. Rossello hasn't mentioned vouchers recently, and gubernatorial candidates for this year's election have steered clear of the thorny issue.

The governor's first try, which offered direct payments to private schools, became law eight months into his first term in 1993. The Puerto Rico Supreme Court deemed it unconstitutional.

So, in 1995, the government created the foundation. The Puerto Rico Appeals Court ruled the foundation was unconstitutional in June. But because lower courts had already come to that conclusion, the Legislature passed a law in 1998 creating another mechanism to hand out "scholarships."

Part of the law was ruled unconstitutional by a lower court in 1999. But instead of appealing, Rossello signed a law that would give money directly to families.

That newest law and the one that created the foundation are now pending appeals before the Puerto Rico Supreme Court.

"Students should have the chance to have equal educational opportunity -- those who have money and those who don't," said Max Pacheco, director of the Education Department's School Development Office.

"If the parents think that a private school gives their kids a better education, in a democracy they should be able to make that choice."

Despite the setbacks, the Department of Education set aside $14 million to give $400 "noneducational" grants to about 23,000 students this fall. Parents have to pledge they will only use the money for uniforms, books, transportation or other expenses, and not for private-school tuition.

For Puerto Rico Teachers Association President Jose Eligio Velez, that's just another way to get around the constitution.

He said his group will keep fighting until school vouchers are dead and the government refocuses its attention on improving public schools.

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