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Why did the Grand Rapids Public Schools go to Puerto Rico to recruit teachers?

January 23, 2020

The local group Talent 2025, is an entity that seeks to influence the education systems in West Michigan and to develop talent (code for students) that will be ready to fill the employment needs on area businesses.

Their most recent blog post is, Teacher Retention and the Future of the Education Workforce. In that blog post, the author recognizes and acknowledges a serious problem in the very first sentence:

Between the years of 2008 and 2016, enrollment in teacher preparation programs within the state of Michigan decreased by 66 percent.

One of the main reasons for the decrease in teacher preparation programs and teacher retention in Michigan and across the country, is low and inadequate salaries. Teacher salaries have been one of the fundamental issues that has led to teacher strikes in the past three years in states like California, Illinois and West Virginia.

Unfortunately, the Talent 2025 blog post does not acknowledge teacher salaries as being a key issue in teacher retention. Instead, the Talent 2025 article focuses on tactics that some school districts in West Michigan are employing to address the shortage of teachers.

When talking about the Grand Rapids Public Schools (GRPS), Talent 2025 writes:

In Kent County, Grand Rapids Public Schools identified a significant shortage of bilingual teachers and a subsequent lack of local candidates sufficient in the language skills they desired. Through research and conversations with other local school districts, GRPS officials learned of an opportunity to hire bilingual teachers from Puerto Rico. With support from the community, designees from GRPS headed to Puerto Rico to identify candidates with the potential to thrive at Grand Rapids Public Schools.

According to an article in School News Network, the GRPS sent four people to Puerto Rico for 5 days in early November with the intent of getting letters of intent from a half a dozen teachers. According to the same article, “Their trip will be partially funded by a $6,000 grant from the Grand Rapids-based Jandernoa Foundation.”

Since the article states that the trip was partly funded by the Jandernoa Foundation, we can probably assume that the rest was paid for by the GRPS, which means public money was used for this trip. The decision to try to recruit teachers in Puerto Rico to come to Grand Rapids and teach in the Grand Rapids Public Schools raises all sorts of questions that we would like to address.

First, it should be noted that the Grand Rapids Public Schools has the lowest teacher salaries in the area, according to data provided by MLive in 4/2019. The MLive article provides a searchable database, which shows the following teacher salaries by school districts: 

  • West Ottawa $69,518
  • Byron Center $69,271
  • Forest Hills $69,219
  • East GR $68,960
  • Cedar Springs $60,910
  • Coopersville $59,276
  • Allendale $57,302
  • Godfrey Lee $56,892
  • Grand Rapids $54,844

If the GRPS was committed to teacher retention and want to attract news teachers to come to this community, then they need to increase the teacher salary.

Second, what else is the GRPS doing to retain and attract teachers, particularly bilingual teachers that they so desperately need because of the growing latino/latinx student population? The GRPS should be working groups like the Hispanic Center or the Latino Coalition to begin the process of cultivating greater opportunities for local latinos/latinx people who want to become teachers. The GRPS could provides incentives for people from this community to return to Grand Rapids after obtaining an education degree and commit to teaching within the GRPS.

Third, it is instructive that Puerto Rico is the place that the GRPS went to recruit teachers. It is critical that we understand that not only have teachers been deeply affected by hurricane Maria in 2017, but that the public school system in Puerto Rico has also been under attack. According to Naomi Klein’s book, The Battle for Paradise, between 2010 and 2017, roughly 340 public schools were shut down; arts and physical education programs were virtually eliminated in many elementary schools; and the board announced plans to slash the University of Puerto Rico’s budget in half.”

In addition, Puerto Rico’s financial struggles began way before hurricane Maria. The island was facing massive Neo-liberal forms austerity measures, which included the defunding of public education. In fact, Julia Keleher, who was appointed in 2016 to be the Secretary of Education, by the now deposed Puerto Rican Governor, Rossello. Keleher, right after the hurricane, created an education reform bill with the assistance of US Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos. This new education reform package included exactly what DeVos has imposed on the mainland, which is expanding charter schools and school-voucher programs. (See Aftershocks of Disaster: Puerto Rico Before and After the Storm, edited by Bonilla and LeBron.)

Finally, the Jandernoa Foundation (which provided $6,000 for the GRPS trip to Puerto Rico) is the foundation of Michael Jandernoa, one of the people who makes up the Grand Rapids Power Structure. Jandernoa is connected to Talent 2025 and the West Michigan Policy Forum, both of which support and promote policies that seek to undermine public education and to develop students (talent) to fill jobs within the West MI business community. Jandernoa has also contributed significantly to the Student Advancement Foundation and he has contributed to several current and former Grand Rapids Public School Board members. If Jandernoa funded part of the trip, then people should be very suspicious of his influence in this process.

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