For more than 80 days, about 35 parents and children have been camping out in front of their neighborhood school in the U.S. Territory of Puerto Rico.
But the community is refusing to let them loot it.
They hope to force lawmakers to reopen the facility.
Department of Education officials have been repeatedly turned away by protesters holding placards with slogans like “This is my school and I want to defend it,” and “There is no triumph without struggle, there is no struggle without sacrifice!”
Officials haven’t even been able to shut off the water or electricity or even set foot inside the building.
The teachers union – the Federación de Maestros de Puerto Rico (FMPR) – has called for a mass demonstration of parents, students and teachers on Sunday, Aug. 23. Protesters in the capital of San Juan will begin a march at 1 p.m. from Plaza Colón to La Fortaleza (the Governor’s residence).
The schools being closed are all in low income areas, said union president Mercedes Martinez. “This is detrimental to education, because the necessities of the community, the investment in infrastructure in recent years, the technology, have not been taken into consideration, and neither the parents nor the teachers have been consulted.”
The Jose Melendez de Manati school, for instance, served students 92% of whom live in poverty.
Now that the building has been closed, parents say they can’t afford the cost to transport their children to a new school miles away. And those schools that remain open have been forced to make drastic cuts to remain functional. Class sizes have ballooned to 35 students or more. Amenities like arts, music, health and physical education have typically been slashed.
The island territory is besieged by vulture capitalists encouraging damaging rewrites to the tax code while buying and selling Puerto Rican debt.
Hundreds of American private equity moguls and entrepreneurs are using the Commonwealth as a tax haven.
Since 2012, U.S. citizens who live on the island for at least 183 days a year pay minimal or no taxes, and unlike those living in Singapore or Bermuda, they get to keep their U.S. passports. After all, they’re still living in the territorial U.S. These individuals pay no local or federal capital gains taxes and no local taxes on dividend interest for 20 years. Even someone working for a mainland company who resides on the island is exempt from paying U.S. federal taxes on his salary.
Big corporations are taking advantage of the situation, too.
Worldwide, American companies keep 60 percent of their cash overseas and untaxed. That’s about $1.7 trillion annually.
Microsoft, for instance, routes its domestic operations through Puerto Rican holdings to reduce taxes on its profits to 1.02 percent – a huge savings from the U.S. corporate tax rate of 35 percent! Over three years, Microsoft saved $4.5 billion in taxes on goods sold in the U.S. alone. That’s a savings of $4 million a day!
Meanwhile, these corporate tax savings equal much less revenue for government entities – both inside and outside of Puerto Rico – to use for public goods such as schooling.
Public schools get their funding from tax revenues. Less tax money means less money to pay for children’s educations. As the Puerto Rican government borrowed in an attempt to shore up budget deficits, the economy tanked.
But have no fear! In swooped Hedge Funds to buy up that debt and sell it for a profit.
When this still wasn’t enough to prop up a system suffering from years of neglect, the Hedge Fund managers demanded more school closures, firing more teachers, etc.
Of course, this is only one interpretation of events.
If you ask Wall Street moguls, they’ll blame the situation on declining student enrollment. And they have a point.
Some 450,000 people have left the island in the last decade as the economy suffered an 8-year depression.
There were 423,000 students in the Puerto Rican school system in 2013. That’s expected to drop to 317,000 by 2020.
But is this the cause of the island’s problems or a symptom?
Unfortunately, things look to get much worse before they’ll get any better.
The government warns it may be out of money to pay its bills by as early as 2016. Over the next five years, it may have to close nearly 600 more schools – almost half of the remaining facilities!
Right on cue, Senate President Eduardo Bhatia is proposing corporate education reform methods to justify these draconian measures. This includes privatizing the school system, tying teacher evaluations to standardized test scores and increasing test-based accountability.
“Our interest is to promote transparency and flow of data through the implementation of a standardized measurement and accountability system for all agencies,” Bhatia said, adding that the methodology has been successful in such cities as Chicago.
Despite such overwhelming opposition, protesters are taking the fight to the capitol. “Tax the Rich!” is a popular slogan on signs for Sunday’s march.
“It’s unacceptable that the rich and powerful that created our crisis are the ones asking the working class for more sacrifices,” said Martinez.
“The foreign companies that pay no taxes or a less amount to evade paying their due in contributions – impose a tax on them now!”
This is just a beginning, she adds. Stronger actions will be coming.
In the meantime, those brave parents and children still refuse to give up their shuttered school.
They dream of a day when that empty building once again rings with the laughter of students and the instruction of teachers.
In a country being used by the wealthy to increase their already swollen bank statements, is that really so much to ask?
You can show your solidarity with these Puerto Rican protestors by spreading the word through social media. Post a picture of yourself with a sign saying you’re with them in their fight. Tweet the Commonwealth Secretary of Education @Rafaelroman6. Use the hashtags #EducacionEnPR #SOSdocente.