Charter schools and the future of Puerto Rico

February 21, 2018

Puerto Rico's government, under pressure from Washington, D.C., is following the script of the "shock doctrine" after the devastation and chaos following Hurricanes Irma and Maria last fall. The latest example: the announcement of plans to privatize the island's public schools by opening up charter schools--the very same process that happened starting a dozen years ago in New Orleans, where public education is now in the hands of the charter operators.

Edwin Morales Laboy, a math teacher and vice president of the Federación de Maestros de Puerto Rico (FMPR), explains the stakes in an article written for the 80 grados website and translated into English by Monique Dols and Todd Chretien.

WHEN PUERTO Rico's Gov. Ricardo Rosselló announced the privatization of public schools using the charter and the educational voucher systems as models, very few people were taken by surprise.

We had come to expect this over the years as so many administrations of both major Puerto Rican parties have been dancing to the tune of education policies sung in Washington.

They are ready to hand over billions of dollars in spending, but only if an education system is implemented that pushes schools to the brink of failure. This failure, then in turn, justifies privatization and handing school budgets over to private educational companies.

And this is how it is possible that, in the last 10 years, without anyone noticing, 67 companies that provide supplemental educational services have secured for themselves more than $1.4 billion in funds to provide services for students struggling students in Title I schools in Puerto Rico.

In reality, these "educational services" served no purpose for anyone on the ground inside the public school system and only helped to swell the coffers of the private educational companies. Impunity and silence reigns.

Members of the Federación de Maestros de Puerto Rico protest standardized testing and privatization
Members of the Federación de Maestros de Puerto Rico protest standardized testing and privatization (Steven Singer)

The privatizers, whose entire existence inside education is justified by fraud and school failure, are now salivating over the Rosselló government's announcement.

WE NEED to be honest with ourselves, which is something the governor has no idea how to do.

Charter schools are driven by profit, and multiple studies show that they do not improve student achievement. According to a study of the National Education Policy Center conducted in 27 states with charter schools in 2013, on aggregate, charter schools did not have higher test scores as an indicator of academic performance.

Another study at Stanford University demonstrated that only 17 percent of charter schools showed any improvement over other schools in the U.S., while 36 percent showed results worse than traditional public schools, and 46 percent did not reflect any significant difference.

On top of this, charters are well known for incidences of racial discrimination, the exclusion of populations with special needs, as well as the enrichment of the so-called non-profit entities with highly paid administrators whose extremely high salaries come at the expense of per-student spending, and job protections and benefits for teachers.

One of the main problems with the corporate model of education is that it destroys the teaching profession and the pedagogical process, turning it into a technical and disposable position.

This cannot be overlooked. This reform aims to impose a training system through which independent thought and critical thinking are removed from teaching, and everything is standardized. Teachers go from teaching for life to teaching to the test, with all of the emotional and psychological consequences that may have for students.

Claiming that educational reform puts students first when it really leaves resources behind is not only hypocritical, it hides the perverse intentions of the privatizers whose chief proponent is none other than Education Secretary Julia Keleher.

Since her appointment to that post in January 2017 by Gov. Rosselló, Keleher has taken her certification from Stanford University's Stanford University's Strategic Decision Making and Risk Management Program and used it to close or consolidate 167 schools. Meanwhile, there are innumerable examples of teachers hired at the last minute, classrooms operating without necessary materials, and a severe lack of academic enrichment.

For years, the Puerto Rico Teachers Federation has inscribed stopping these closures and redressing funding shortages on its banners, but their demands have fallen on deaf ears. Instead, the so-called reformers, acting like wizards and circus performers, tell us that they know the magic formula for fixing the very problems that they themselves have created.

However, we know that for students to excel academically, we must attend to all the components of their lives that go into creating a school community, including students' socioeconomic background, parent involvement, and whether or not their teachers have the training and motivation needed to carry out their roles adequately.

Education is a comprehensive process, including everything from students' nutrition and hygiene to parents reviewing homework. Education is a social relation, and the degree to which any one component is affected by external circumstances, all components will be impacted.

How can we say we are putting students first if their most important resource, their teachers, receive miserable salaries, are overworked, and have no pensions or job security--and whose teaching know-how is being rapidly replaced by a curriculum that is more and more irrelevant to their students?

Who would want to be a teacher under such deplorable working conditions? Puerto Rican teachers need much more than an empty promise of a $125 raise in exchange for 7,000 job cuts and 300 closed schools.

The government's stated objectives behind its school reforms have no basis in reality. They are vile lies, just like the arguments used to justify the disastrous labor law reform passed recently.

THANKS TO the bureaucrats leading both main political parties in Puerto Rico and a systematic campaign to discredit teachers on behalf of scholastic corporations, fewer and fewer university students are choosing teaching as a profession.

From 2005 to 2014, at the University of Puerto Rico's Rio Piedras campus alone, the number of students entering the education department fell by 58 percent, while other departments experienced much smaller drops, and the Department of Natural Sciences Natural actually increased by 25 percent.

This should sound an alarm if we take into account the recent wave of teacher resignations and retirements because of the economic crisis and all the attacks on teachers directed by the Department of Education.

Over the last years, the Department of Education's policies have been a disaster that has driven teachers out of the classroom. Politicians and corporate bosses who have never set foot in a classroom are pushing out our best-trained and most experienced teachers. Curiously, these same teachers are being received with open arms in the United States.

Increasing administrative workloads, drill-and-kill curricula, punitive evaluations, constant media attacks against teachers, and inadequate salary and working conditions all add up to destroying education as a delicate process and turning it into a fast-food drive-through.

If we want our best teachers to choose to teach and remain in our schools for the long term so our students have a quality education, we must reverse the equation that Rosselló, who has never studied nor understands public education, wants to impose. The current reform drive, if approved, will be the last nail in the coffin for public education and the social and family components that support it.

Teachers have no rights in charter schools, no job security and pitiful wages, and the profit motive crowds out every other consideration, including the students.

All working people must steadfastly oppose this robbery. We must reject the school reformers' false promises and show that we, the school communities ourselves, understand our children's needs and know how to create excellent and quality schools.

Unfortunately, based on our own experience, we know that this will not be resolved through a frank dialogue between the Rosselló government and our school communities. After all, their agenda is clear, and they are not acting in good faith. This fight will be resolved in the streets by building a large social movement that forces corrupt politicians and the corporate interests who stand behind them to listen to us.

They are using our children to enrich themselves and robbing the country blind, using the odious debt owed to big banks as an excuse. They've already robbed us by taking all they can from the national Electric Power Authority, while leaving us only the debt. Now they want to steal money from schools. Meanwhile, they want to rob workers in private businesses of their rights, leaving us no future.

When I was young, a teacher taught me that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. When it comes to our schools, we need a new vision, but this vision must take private companies and the profit motive out of education.

We must build up from below. We will not allow the politicians to rob our country's future. We will defend ourselves.

Translated by Monique Dols and Todd Chretien

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