Crippled Puerto Rico Offered School Privatization as Quick Fix for Woes

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You’re Puerto Rico’s school system.

 

More than five months since a devastating hurricane hit the island’s shores, some 270 schools are still without power.

 

Roughly 25,000 students are leaving with that number expected to swell to 54,000 in four years. And that’s after an 11-year recession already sent 78,000 students  seeking refuge elsewhere.

 

So what do you do to stop the flow of refugees fleeing the island? What do you do to fix your storm damaged schools? What do you do to ensure all your precious children are safe and have the opportunity to learn?

 

If you’re Puerto Rico’s Governor Ricardo Rossello, you sell off your entire system of public education.

 

After an economic history of being pillaged and raped by corporate vultures from the mainland, Rossello is suggesting the U.S. Territory offer itself for another round of abuse.

 

He wants to close 300 more schools and change the majority of those remaining into charter and voucher schools.

 

That means no elected school boards.

 

That means no public meetings determining how these schools are run.

 

It means no transparency in terms of how the money is spent.

 

It means public funding can become private profit.

 

And it means fewer choices for children who will have to apply at schools all over the island and hope one accepts them. Unlike public schools, charter and voucher schools pick and choose whom to enroll.

 

Make no mistake. This has nothing to do with serving the needs of children. It is about selling off public property because it belongs to poor, brown people.

 

Something similar happened in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

 

A district that served mostly black and poor children was swiped by private interests and turned almost exclusively into charter schools.

 

The results have been an abysmal academic record, the loss of black teachers, black neighborhoods, cultural heritage and in its place support for a status quo that just doesn’t care to provide the proper resources to students of color.

 

If the Governor and his wealthy backers have their way, Puerto Rico will be yet another ghettoized colony gobbled up by industry.

 

However, the people aren’t going to let this happen without a fight.

 

Mercedes Martinez, President of the Federacion de Maestros of Puerto Rico, an island teacher’s union, released the following statement:

 

“Dear comrades in the diaspora, now more than ever we need your unconditional solidarity.

 

Governor Roselló just announced his plan to shut down 307 schools, implement charter schools and vouchers. Disaster capitalism at its best. Added to the announcement of the privatization of PREPA. [Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority]

 

The way to victory is already paved, organized and militant resistance, concrete proposals to improve the public goods that we have, unity and organization. Be our voice in the states and let the world know that corporate reformers want to make PR the next New Orleans as they did after Katrina.

 

The hurricane has been the perfect storm and excuse for them to advance their plans. Today the so called “educational reform” will be sent to the legislature.

 

We will give the hardest fight of our lives, and we will triumph. Send letters and videos of support with our struggle. Teachers United, will never be defeated!

 

Lucha sí”

 

I don’t know about you, but I stand with these brave teachers, parents and their students.

 

I may live in Pennsylvania, my skin may be white, but I do not support the theft of Puerto Rico’s schools.

 

These children have just as much right as mine to a free and appropriate education. Their parents deserve the right to control their districts. They deserve transparency and self-rule.

 

They deserve the choice to guide their own destinies.

 

Teachers’ opposition to the move comes even though the Governor is proposing a $1,500 raise for all educators. Martinez says it could come to a general strike.

 

Their cause has hope on its side – especially in blocking the proposed school vouchers.

 

The Governor’s voucher proposal wouldn’t go into effect until the 2019-20 school year. However, the Puerto Rico Supreme Court struck down a similar program in 1994 when the current governor’s father, Pedro Rossello – himself a former governor – tried to push it through. The court ruled the island’s constitution forbids public money being used to fund privately run schools.

 

From this day forward, let us always remember what they did to New Orleans. Let us remember what they are trying to do to Puerto Rico.

 

Corporate school reform is not about making better schools. If it was, you would see plans like this being proposed in Beverly Hills and rich white neighborhoods across the country.

 

But somehow that never happens.

 

These schemes only show up in poor communities populated predominantly by people of color.

 

While the rest of our public schools are celebrating Black History Month, the children of Puerto Rico are reliving the struggle for their civil rights.

 

They are still the victims of colonization and brutality.

 

But they are not alone.

 

I stand with the people of Puerto Rico.

 

Will you stand, too?

 

Will you speak out for Puerto Rico?


Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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Making Puerto Rico the New New Orleans – Steal the Schools and Give Them to Big Business to Run For Profit

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Charter school backers can’t help it.

 

They see a bunch of black or brown kids displaced by a natural disaster and they have to swoop in to help…

 

Help themselves, that is.

 

They did it in 2005 to New Orleans schools after Hurricane Katrina. Now they want to do it again in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.

 

“This is a real opportunity to press the reset button,” said Puerto Rican Secretary of Education Julia Keleher.

 

“…this [is a] transformational opportunity for us to start to think fundamentally differently about what it is to be in school, and how one goes about getting an education.”

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A dozen years ago in Louisiana, that meant stealing almost the entire New Orleans public school system in the aftermath of Katrina. About 90 percent of the city’s 126 schools were given to the Louisiana Recovery School District, which turned them all into charter schools.

 

In effect, Louisiana state officials elected by the white majority stole control from local school boards elected by the city’s black majority. More than 7,000 teachers most of whom were people of color and had been displaced by the hurricane found themselves replaced by mostly white teachers brought in from other parts of the country.

 

Now, more than 10 years later, the New Orleans experiment has been shown to be a failure. Scores on standardized tests have improved (kinda), but the curriculum has narrowed, teacher turnover has doubled, disadvantaged and special education students have even fewer resources while schools fight over high achieving children, students spend hours being bused to schools far from their homes, communities have been erased, and parents have less control over how their own tax dollars are spent.

 

That is what Keleher and others want to repeat in Puerto Rico – wrest control away from the public and give it to big business all wrapped up in a bow.

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Why?

 

 

Public schools come with expensive perks like local control, transparent budgets and regulations to ensure all the money is being spent on students. It’s much cheaper to run these districts with unelected bureaucrats, closed-door budgets and the ability to grab as much of the cash as possible and stuff it into their own pockets.

 

It ’s not like anyone’s going to complain. These schools aren’t for rich white kids. They’re for poor brown ones.

 

It’s just colonialism, 2017 style!

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Jeanne Allen thinks that’s a great idea.

The founder and CEO of school privatization lobbying group, the Center For Education Reform, said that charterization is the best thing that could happen to Puerto Rican schools.

 

After dealing with the immediate effects of the hurricane, reformers “should be thinking about how to recreate the public education system in Puerto Rico.” And she should know. Allen was also involved in the New Orleans fiasco turning that system over to big business.

 

She added that charter school operators across the nation, including cyber charter school managers (whose schools often have even more wretched academic results), should be thinking about how to get involved in Puerto Rico post-Maria.

 

Keleher has already begun laying the groundwork.

 

Even though many Puerto Rican schools are only operational because of the work of teachers who have cleaned them up and have opened them despite being told not to by Keleher’s administration, the Education Secretary has pledged to lay off massive amounts of teachers and permanently close more schools – even schools that are structurally sound.

 

“Consolidating schools makes sense,” Keleher said in October. “They can go out and protest in the streets, but that doesn’t change the fact that we can’t go back to life being the same as it was before the hurricane.”

 

Puerto Rican teachers aren’t letting the vultures swoop in without protest.

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Just this week twenty-one teachers in the capitol of San Juan were arrested during a rally at the Education Department headquarters. They were demanding all structurally sound schools be opened immediately.

 

“Our schools have served students well and although we recognize that it can be expensive to repair some schools, what we are asking is that schools that are ready be opened,” said social worker Alba Toro just before the arrests.

 

Administration officials are claiming the teachers were taken into custody because they physically attacked the civil servants, but witnesses say the protest was entirely peaceful.

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According to Education Safety Commissioner César González, the protesters assaulted at least three security employees and a public relations employee while inside the building.
However, protestors dispute this version of events. Eulalia Centeno, who was part of the group that went inside the building, but left before the arrests began, said that no violent acts were committed and that the protesters only demanded to see the secretary to request the opening of public schools.

 

Seven weeks after the hurricane, less than half of the island’s nearly 1,200 public schools are open in any capacity. Though many schools endured severe storm and flood damage, others were repaired and cleaned to shelter hurricane victims and are ready to take in students.

“Keleher is using the crisis as an opportunity to close hundreds of public schools, lay off senior teachers and privatize public education,” says Mercedes Martinez, President of the Federacion de Maestros of Puerto Rico, an island teachers union.

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Martinez was one of the teachers arrested during the protest.

 

When she was taken out of the building in handcuffs, her son was photographed leaning over a railing and patting his mother on the shoulder.

 

This is what real heroes do.

 

They refuse to back down despite the forces of prejudice and commerce stacked against them.

 

Will we let the charter school vampires suck Puerto Rico dry?

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Puerto Rico Teachers Plan One-Day Strike to Protest Corporate Education Reform

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Welcome to sunny Puerto Rico.

The ocean is a gorgeous cerulean blue. Palm trees wave gently in the salty breeze. And in the distance you can hear percussion, horns and singing.

The protest has begun.

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Residents of this United States territory have been fighting freshman Governor Alejandro García Padilla’s efforts to close public schools, privatize those left and shackle teachers to the same corporate education reform schemes that are crippling schools on the mainland.

This Tuesday island educators are asking parents not to send their children to school. Teachers plan to conduct a one-day strike to protest legislation that could be passed the same day to further cripple the Commonwealth’s public education system.

“On November 17th we’ll be giving our lesson’s outside our classrooms,” says Mercedes Martinez, president of the Federación de Maestros de Puerto Rico, the teachers union.

“We’ll be in front of our schools early in the morning and at 10:00 a.m. will march from Congress to the Governor’s Mansion in San Juan. This is one of many activities that we’ll perform in defense of public education. We will not accept these precarious impositions and will fight back.”

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The protest is in response to Project 1456 which would close more than 380 public schools. The government has already closed 150 schools in the past 5 years.

This would force many students into even more overcrowded classrooms. Thousands of children would have to be relocated to schools far from their homes.

But that’s not all.

The proposed legislation would also privatize 15% of those schools left standing. Unlike the mainland, Puerto Rico has no charter schools. Teachers went on a 10-day strike in 2008 which only ended after the island Secretary of Education Rafael Aragunde signed an agreement promising not to open any charters.

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If privatized schools opened on the island, parents might have to pay an additional fee for services they now enjoy for free. Amenities like lunches and even tuition may have to be subsidized by parents out of pocket.

Moreover, it would collapse the teachers retirement system, Martinez says. Charter schools would not deduct employees payments to the pension system so it might not be able to remain solvent.

Project 1456 would harm teachers in another way, too. It would enact a punitive evaluation system where 20% of educators value would be based on students standardized test scores. Any teacher with a 79% or less would have two years to improve or be fired.

“Teachers will have no rights,” Martinez says.

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The proposed legislation has already been approved by the Commonwealth Senate. It’s main author Sen. Eduardo Bhatia is pushing for the House to fast track it for approval.

Discussions began in the House last week.

Protesters were there on Wednesday. They stood up in the government chamber and walked out en mass when it was brought up for discussion. Eighteen of them wore white T-shirts spelling out the message “Our Schools Are Not For Sale.”

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Inside the House, presidents of private universities testified in favor of the measure.

“Obviously they want to become administrators of charter schools on our island,” Martinez says.

Outside the building, protesters held their own emblematic hearing on the matter. Community members, teachers and parents testified in the open air about how this legislation would hurt children. They ended with a symbolic vote against it.

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Puerto Ricans are not alone in this fight.

Jitu Brown, a community organizer from Chicago and Director of Journey for Justice Alliance traveled there to stand in solidarity with those fighting for their schools. Brown participated in a 34-day hunger strike in his hometown a month ago to protest Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to close the last open enrollment school in his neighborhood.

“This beautiful, breathtaking place is marred by ugly U.S colonialism and privatization of public services on steroids!” says Brown of Puerto Rico.

“I was blessed to spend time with powerful people fighting for a better world. Big ups to your warrior spirit, discipline and hospitality! Where we struggle, we can win! If we don’t struggle, we are guaranteed to lose.”

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The plight of Puerto Rican communities also inspired support from the Badass Teachers Association, a group of more than 56,000 educators, parents, students and activists.

“The Badass Teachers Association stands in strong solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Puerto Rico who are fighting for the very foundation of their democracy – the survival of their public school system which is under assault by the 1% who seek to close it up and deny Puerto Rican children a right to an education,” says Executive Director Marla Kilfoyle.

Protesters are getting the word out. They’ve already handed out thousands of fliers. Today they plan to drive in a large caravan across the island.

“We’ve got a bunch of cars with sound equipment,” Martinez says.

“We will go to all the communities near our schools in different regions asking parents to support the strike on the 17th.”

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Much of the the island’s financial woes are imported from the mainland. Puerto Rico is besieged by vulture capitalists encouraging damaging rewrites to the tax code while buying and selling the territory’s debt.

Hundreds of American private equity moguls and entrepreneurs are using the Commonwealth as a tax haven.

As a result, tax revenues to fund public goods like education are drying up while the super rich rake in profits.

Officials warn the government 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!

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“That’s why the Teacher’s Federation and other teacher unions allied together to fight back against the attack on our education system,” Martinez says.

“As you can see, we’ve been busy.”

If Project 1456 is passed by the House, the union is considering a general strike.

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Of the 135 schools closed in just the last two years, Commonwealth Secretary of Education Rafael Román had originally proposed shuttering 200. The remaining 65 were only kept alive because communities occupied the buildings and refused to let the government step in.

Protesters stormed the Senate in October when Bhatia first introduced Project 1456.

“Senators decided to approve it without discussion because they did not want to listen to teachers chants and indignation,” says Martinez.

“Senator Bhatia has become the symbol for privatization under this administration. He has never been in a public School. He has no bond with it. He’s a demagogue.”


NOTE: This article also was published on the Badass Teachers Association blog.