Centralization and bureaucratization in the Puerto Rico Department of Education
20 January 2009
Armando A. Valdés Prieto
The Puerto Rico Department of Education (PRDE) is a large and highly centralized
bureaucracy that manages a complex system for elementary and secondary education on the
island. Growing concerns as to the fiscal situation in Puerto Rico have focused attention on the
Department’s costly and inefficient operations. The latest effort at an integral reform of this
bureaucracy occurred during Sila María Calderón’s tenure as Governor from 2001 to 2005. The
Reengineering Project that was taken up during said term, although complete in its
recommendations, was not implemented due to time and political constraints. The agency is
therefore still operating under a very faulty and costly organizational scheme.
Two main issues complicate reform efforts. On the one hand, the Department is the
largest single employer in Puerto Rico with a higher than average proportion of its employees
dedicated to administrative and support services, rather than classroom teaching. On the other,
the Department is over-centralized, with few functions delegated to regional, local and school
level administrative officials. In a marked difference with most U.S. school systems, the PRDE
manages all schools in the entire Commonwealth with no local governance institutions, such as
school boards, to supervise and administer operations closer to the affected communities.
This paper presents a brief analysis of issues relating to overstaffing and centralization in
the PRDE. A short discussion of the Department’s school voucher experiment during the 1990s
is also included. Further, it presents some general policy recommendations that attempt to
address these two critical and persistent problems.
A number of factors have contributed significantly to the Department’s overstaffing
problems over the years. This paper identifies seven critical issues regarding this point:
1. Political patronage;
2. Collective bargaining agreements;
3. Weak private sector employment;
4. Lengthy and complicated processes for appealing disciplinary actions;
5. Statutory and judicial demands;
6. Disperse school system with a large number of schools;
7. Centralized bureaucracy.
Political patronage has long played a role in Puerto Rican government. Professor Charles
T. Goodsell, an American academic who participated in and studied the administrative and
bureaucratic innovations occurring in Puerto Rico during the 1940s and 1950s as a result of the
New Deal, had, in 1965, already identified patronage as a major factor overburdening the public
payroll. He observed that successive government administrations believed that in order to
effectively carry out a government program they had to rely on party loyalists. Goodsell himself
admits that, “by 1941 it may have been perfectly legitimate to wonder whether, without
replacement of some [government workers appointed by parties formerly in power] by Populars 1,
the reform statutes [being approved at the time] would be actively carried out by the departments
and agencies (Goodsell 104).”
Of course, the attitude observed in Goodsell’s work could perhaps best be described as a
sort of benign patronage wherein it was justified as a means of achieving a legitimate
“Popular” is shorthand for a loyalist of the Popular Democratic Party (PDP). The PDP was, in 1941, beginning to
move forward on an ambitious agenda of government and economic reform as a result of their significant victory in
the 1940 legislative elections.
governmental end. Since then, patronage has become simply a means of rewarding political
supporters and organizers. The Department of Education, largest of all government agencies in
Puerto Rico, has of course been a source of many patronage jobs. Moreover, the fact that the
Department has a school in most every neighborhood in Puerto Rico allows central political
machines to reward supporters throughout the entire island. This is a great source of power for
The fact that the PRDE has a relatively higher proportion of administrative and support
staff can also be attributed to patronage. While teachers in some fields, such as special
education, are in high demand, the Department also requires a myriad of administrative and
support services, many of which can be rendered by low-skilled labor. These jobs, though also
low-paying, are easier to justify and recruitment requirements are less stringent. As such, these
types of jobs are highly prized by political leaders needing to compensate campaign and electoral
staff for volunteer work during the election cycle.
Even jobs requiring more complex skill sets are subject to recruitment through patronage.
Perhaps the most notable example of this was the creation of two regional levels: the Educational
Region and the School District. The first was tasked with administrative support services to
schools; the second with academic support (Puerto Rico Department of Education 1). The
Regions and the Districts do not support the same schools nor is one subordinate to the other.
Schools respond to both structures and most directly to the Secretary of Education, creating a
complex and impracticable accountability system. Though intended to improve administrative
and academic support, some have argued that these structures are simply political creatures
created by administrations of the two opposing parties in order to provide jobs for supporters in a
range of management levels. Given the almost absurd complexity of the system that was set up,
the argument certainly has some credence.
Collective bargaining has also had a significant impact both on the number of persons
employed by the Department and, quite obviously, on the total cost of the payroll. Before 1998,
employees in the Commonwealth’s agencies, as opposed to its public corporations, were not
allowed to negotiate collective bargaining agreements. Employees could form associations and
brotherhoods but not actual unions. With the approval of the Public Service Labor Relations
Law, Public Law 45 of February 1998, employees in all government agencies, except for those
having arrest powers, were given the right to form unions and negotiate collectively for better
Negotiations have generally focused on so-called economic clauses, in other words, those
that would guarantee for employees higher wages or marginal benefits. However, the
inaccurately termed non-economic clauses, those having to do with safety standards and other
non-salary conditions, have had as significant an impact on overstaffing and costs. Two
examples should illustrate the manner in which collective bargaining has led to a continuous
expansion in the employment rolls.
In negotiating their contract, maintenance workers requested that a cap be placed on the
number of units each janitor would have to clean in one day. The agreed upon number was
eight. By definition, a unit could be a classroom, a bathroom or even a small office. The
PRDE’s acceptance of these terms led to a doubling in the number of janitorial staff in order to
accommodate the new cap.
The cafeteria workers, on the other hand, managed to cap their workday at six hours.
Certain hours immediately before and during lunch were busier, requiring more employees to
staff the kitchens and serving lines. However, because of the cap, breakfast workers could not be
asked to stay an additional hour and lunch workers could not be asked to arrive an hour earlier in
order to have the required staffing level during the busiest time without having to recruit
personnel. As such, the number of cafeteria workers also ballooned.
A weak private sector has also contributed to overstaffing in government and specifically
in the PRDE. With a participation rate below 45% and an unemployment rate currently hovering
at around 12%, the fact that about a third of the workforce is employed by government should
illustrate the size and feebleness of the island’s private sector. During recessionary periods,
government has often stepped in and hired additional personnel to buttress overall employment.
This in turn has led to the expansion of the permanent civil service. The PRDE has not been
exempt from this practice and, again, its presence throughout the island provides political leaders
with the opportunity to increase employment not only around the San Juan metropolitan area but
also in rural areas and cities outside of the capital.
Government workers have also achieved significant gains as regards job security issues.
Already in 1949, the first Commission for Reorganization, tasked with streamlining Puerto
Rico’s Executive Branch, had identified potential problems with the procedures for disciplining
public employees. The Commission indicated that procedures to dismiss or suspend public
employees were overly onerous and seemed to create a private right to public employment, thus
causing the growth of the government employment rolls. It recommended that the formal
judicial procedures in place to appeal agencies’ disciplinary actions be replaced with informal
hearings. Likewise, the Commission recommended that the Personnel Board’s decisions not be
appealable. (Commission for Reorganization 50-51).
Ignoring the recommendations of the 1949 Commission, procedures to dismiss or
discipline employees have actually grown more complicated. This has been in some degree
motivated by political distrust between the two opposing parties. Making disciplinary actions
more complicated naturally impedes successive governments from firing party loyalists.
Although the right to appeal is generally reserved for the protection of certain rights of a higher
order, affected employees can now appeal disciplinary actions all the way to the Puerto Rico
Supreme Court. Initial hearings have also become more formal and judicial in nature. Thus,
government agencies and specifically the PRDE have great difficulty in admonishing workers
and therefore are bereft of an essential motivational tool. In sum, one could argue that in fact a
private right to public employment has developed over the years and this, in turn, has impacted
the public payroll.
Statutory and judicial demands have also increased the number of employees in the
PRDE. Legislators often pass laws to mandate additional services for public schools. A recent
example ordered all schools to hire at least one psychologist to offer services to the student body.
The judiciary has also stepped in and mandated additional personnel be hired, particularly as
regards the special education program, which has for more than two decades been under federal
judicial scrutiny as part of a class action lawsuit brought by parents of children with disabilities.
As the number of special education children has increased dramatically over the past few years,
reaching a total of 97,731 in academic year 2007-08, nearly 19% of the total school population
(Aragunde 53), so have the demands placed upon the Department and its personnel.
The PRDE also has the most schools of any school district in the country, thus requiring a
larger number of support and teaching personnel due to the number of standalone units. The
PRDE is the third largest school system in the U.S. as regards the number of students. However,
it is the second largest as regards the number of teachers. Los Angeles Unified, the second
largest school system in number of students, had 741,367 students in the 2004-05 academic year
and a total of 35,186 teachers. The PRDE had 575,648 students and 43,054 teachers. With
respect to the number of schools, the PRDE had 1,523 units while the largest system, New York
City Public Schools, which had 986,967 students, only had 1,205 units and L.A. Unified only
had 721 (Garofano and Sable A-4). The data clearly demonstrate that the distribution and
number of schools is at a far from optimum level, thus leading to overstaffing.
Finally, the over centralized bureaucracy of the PRDE contributes to the agency’s
overstaffing problems. Because so much authority rests at the central level, any programs to be
executed at the school level require an accompanying administrative apparatus to manage them
from the agency’s headquarters. This also adds to the problem of a disproportionately high ratio
of administrative employees to classroom teachers.
These seven factors result in an overstaffed bureaucracy. L.A. Unified had a total staff
level in 2004-05 of 72,983, while the PRDE had 76,865. That is a ratio of 10.2 students to 1 staff
in L.A. while in Puerto Rico, the comparable ratio is 7.5 to 1. The City of Chicago School
District, the next largest, has an even more impressive ratio of 14.2 to 1. On average, in the 100
largest districts in the U.S., the ratio is 9.5 to 1 (Garofano and Sable A-4, A-12).
Furthermore, as has already been indicated, the ratio of administrative to teaching
personnel is higher than in other jurisdictions. The data presented in Table 1, below, show the
percentage of teaching, administrative and logistical staff in the PRDE as compared to the
average in the 100 largest school districts in the U.S. The data bear out the observations
presented to this point. The PRDE has more administrative and support staff than the average in
the U.S. Consequently, less staff is dedicated to teaching or academic support. The fact that the
PRDE also has a higher percentage of employees working at the Local Education Agency level,
in other words, at the PRDE’s central offices, and a lower percentage of administrative staff in
the schools, shows that the Department is highly centralized with much of the decision making
being done at a level quite removed from the actual student population.
Full-time-equivalent staff by type All districts PRDE
Teachers 52.0% 56.0%
Instructional support 10.4% 1.0%
Guidance counselors 1.8% 1.3%
Library media staff 1.2% 1.6%
Local Education Agency administrators 0.7% 2.2%
School administrators 2.9% 1.9%
Other staff 31.0% 35.9%
Table 1: Staff by Type in the 100 Largest Districts and the
PRDE – 2004-05 (Garofano and Sable A-12)
The PRDE is only one of three of the 100 largest school districts in the U.S. that have
authority over an entire state-level jurisdiction. The other two are Hawaii and the District of
Columbia. Neither compares in complexity or size to the PRDE given that Hawaii only has
183,185 students in 285 schools and DC has 62,306 in 174 schools (Garofano and Sable 3, A-4
to A-5). It is therefore rather unique that a school system of such size and geographical
extension should remain under the control of one central authority.
Not only are its size and extension unique but also the level of centralization of most
operational and academic functions. Dr. Ariel Fiszbein, an economist with The World Bank,
developed a methodology for evaluating the level of centralization in the provision of education
services in societies transitioning out of communism in Eastern and Central Europe (Fiszbein 3).
Table 2, below, follows Dr. Fiszbein’s approach and applies it to the PRDE.
Central Region District Municipal School External
1. Personnel (teachers, directors, nonteachers)
1.1 Salaries X
1.2 Career path X X X
1.3 Time and task management X X X X
1.4 Training X X
1.5 Evaluation X X X X
2.1 Content and standards X
2.2 Development X X
3. Textbook, equipment, instructional materials
3.1 Criteria and standards X
3.2 Production X X
3.3 Procurement/distribution X X X
4. School infrastructure
4.1 Planning X
4.2 Construction X
4.3 Maintenance X X X X
5. Student enrollment
5.1 Regulations X
5.2 Selection criteria X X
6. Quality control
6.1 Student assesment and monitoring X X
6.2 School assesment and monitoring X X
7. Financial administration and control X X X
Table 2: Selected PRDE Functions by Level, Source of analysis: Author
As can be appreciated from the analysis presented above, the central level intervenes in
every one of the functions identified by Fiszbein. Schools, on the other hand, only have some
degree of participation in a reduced number of administrative, planning and personnel functions.
The municipal level is the one most detached from the administration of schools. Although some
efforts have been made to have municipalities provide maintenance services to schools, the effort
has stopped at that and has not progressed to greater local control. This contrasts greatly from
the model of school governance practiced in most U.S. jurisdictions.
A notable effort to foster greater accountability at the school level and introduce market
mechanisms to promote innovation and improvement was undertaken during Dr. Pedro
Rosselló’s tenure as Governor. A school voucher program was legislated in 1993 that would
have allowed students to transfer a $1,500 credit when selecting to go a) from one public school
to another, b) from a private school to a public school, c) from a public school to a private school
and d) when taking upper level courses at a university while still in high school. The Puerto
Rico Supreme Court, in the case of Puerto Rico Teacher's Association v. Torres, struck down the
section of the law that would have allowed students to transfer said credit to a private school.
Though the government argued that the voucher was a scholarship for students, the Supreme
Court found that the voucher would, in reality, provide funding to private schools, something
that is specifically forbidden in Puerto Rico’s constitution. Further, the Court found that the law
leaned heavily in favor of private schools over public schools.
In fact, when that section of the law was struck down in 1994, the PRDE mostly
abandoned the other components of the school voucher program. Thus, it is clear that the
government’s intention at the time was driven by an ideologically conservative preference for
Any voucher program that would divert funds from the public school system to private
schools would and should face the same result. Not only does the constitution prohibit public
funding of private education, but also most private schools in Puerto Rico are either parochial or
denominational schools. As such, public funding of these institutions would cross certain
thresholds in the separation of church and state.
However, the abandonment of the entire program was too precipitous. The introduction
of market mechanisms, such as school choice, should be experimented with in order to evaluate
whether or not this would improve the quality of education. Further, by allowing parents and
students to select the best schools, the process may lead to the consolidation or elimination of
some underachieving school units, thereby fostering optimum administrative levels. Finally, any
mechanism that would wrest control over decision making from the central level should at least
be considered in a positive light.
1. Cap the percentage of administrative employees by law at a number closer to the U.S.
average. A similar strategy should be undertaken as regards the percentage of
administrative employees that are at the central level of governance.
2. Reorganize and consolidate schools to achieve economies of scale, meet optimum
administrative levels, reduce the number of units and thereby reduce the number of
administrative and support personnel. In order to achieve this, local political
considerations will have to be put aside, giving preeminence to siting decisions based on
optimum levels of performance and convenience.
3. Expand programs to promote municipal involvement in schools beyond maintenance
services. Actual decision making functions should also be delegated to the local level.
4. Perform an experiment or pilot program with an arrangement similar to U.S. school
boards delegating power over administrative and staffing decisions to an elected board of
parents, teachers and other interested parties. Maintain curricular control at the central
level. Because the property tax base is so small and mostly exempt on the island, a
significant level of central government financial support will also have to be maintained.
5. Significant consideration will have to be given to collective bargaining. So called non-
economic clauses should be analyzed more carefully to identify their real cost.
Negotiations with unions should aim to achieve some concessions as regards staffing
6. Rethink the process for disputing disciplinary personnel actions. Establish a more
informal process that would reduce transaction costs for both parties in order to achieve
7. Scrutinize with greater care legislative proposals mandating new or expanded educational
8. Consider re-launching a school choice program that would allow parents and students to
select between public schools as a means to consolidate the student population and
reward well-performing schools.
Aragunde Torres, Rafael. Presentation on the Recommended Budget for Fiscal Year 2008-2009.
Presentation to the Budget Commission of the Puerto Rico House of Representatives. San
Juan, Puerto Rico: Puerto Rico Department of Education, 2008.
Commission for Reorganization. Report on the Reorganization of the Executive Branch of the
Government of Puerto Rico. Public-sector government reorganization study. San Juan,
Puerto Rico: Government of Puerto Rico, 1949.
Fiszbein, Ariel. Decentralizing Education in Transition Societies: Case Studies from Central and
Eastern Europe. Washington, D.C.: World Bank Publications, 2001.
Garofano, Anthony and Jennifer Sable. Characteristics of the 100 Largest Public Elementary and
Secondary School Districts in the United States: 2004-05. Statistical Analysis Report.
Washington, D.C.: National Center on Education Statistics, Institute of Education
Sciences, U.S. Department of Education, 2008.
Goodsell, Charles T. Administration of a Revolution: Executive Reform in Puerto Rico under
Governor Tugwell, 1941-1946. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard Univeristy Press,
Public Service Labor Relations Law. No. Public Law 45. 25 February 1998.
Puerto Rico Department of Education. Reengineering Project. Executive Summary. San Juan,
Puerto Rico: Puerto Rico Department of Education, 2004.
Puerto Rico Teacher's Association v. Torres. No. 137 D.P.R. 528. Puerto Rico Supreme Court.
30 November 1994.