SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — The governor of Puerto Rico is trying to do what more than a century of American citizenship has failed to accomplish: teach Puerto Ricans to speak English as well as they do Spanish.
Gov. Luis Fortuno, who has been mentioned as a possible Republican vice-presidential candidate, has proposed an ambitious, and what critics call far-fetched, plan to require all public schools to teach all courses in English while still offering Spanish grammar and literature classes.
The U.S. territory has had a long and contentious relationship with the English language, and many Puerto Ricans are skeptical about embracing it, fearing they will lose a key part of their identity and find themselves a step closer to statehood, a status that only about half of islanders have backed in recent polls.
The governor wants Puerto Rico to become the 51st U.S. state. But he says his plan is about economic necessity, not politics.
"Bilingualism opens doors and provides opportunity to our children so they can shine and become successful in a labor market that is increasingly competitive and globalized," he said.
Only 12 of the island's 1,472 schools offer an all-English curriculum of the sort envisioned by Fortuno, while 35 other schools offer some courses in English, such as math and physical education, said Education Secretary Edwin Moreno.
Among those rejecting the plan is the Puerto Rico Teachers Association, whose president, Aida Diaz, said that while she supports bilingual education, the notion of teaching all courses in English is extreme.
All public schools are currently required to teach English from kindergarten through high school, and 9,000 teachers are devoted to that, but about 96 percent of the island's 3.9 million people speak Spanish at home, and some 2.8 million Puerto Ricans do not consider themselves fluent in English, according to the U.S. Census.
Fortuno's proposal comes just months before voters face a two-part referendum in November to help decide the island's political status. The first part of the referendum will ask if voters want a change in status or prefer to remain a U.S. commonwealth. The second part will ask voters to choose from three options: statehood, independence or something in between called sovereign free association.
English actually dominated Puerto Rican public education during the first half of the 20th century. From 1900 to 1948, all high school subjects were taught in English, until the island's first democratically elected governor, Luis Munoz Marin, ended the practice.