Standing against the privatization storm

August 15, 2018

With members of the militant Federación de Maestros de Puerto Rico planning a one-day strike to defend public education, New York City educator Monique Dols describes the struggles and solidarity she witnessed on her recent visit to the island.

LAST MONDAY was the first day of school in Puerto Rico, and it was a disorganized and chaotic disaster thanks to the government’s cruel assault on public education. More than 250 public schools, many of them in excellent condition and with full enrollment, have been shut down, over the objections of their communities.

On Wednesday, educators will set a different tone — with a one-day strike to save their schools.

Eleven months after Hurricane María struck, there are signs everywhere of how a system with upside-down priorities made the natural disaster so much worse — but education is an especially clear example.

In the weeks leading up to the opening of schools August 13, the courts had the opportunity to rule in favor of the children of Puerto Rico and against disaster capitalism — but they failed to do so again and again.

Students and teachers march against school closures in Puerto Rico
Students and teachers march against school closures in Puerto Rico (Federación de Maestros de Puerto Rico | Facebook)

With the one-day strike today, teachers, supported by students, parents and the community, will do what government officials and corporate interests refuse to.

THE SITUATION on the ground is gut-wrenching. Fully functioning schools with intact campuses and capable and loving school staff have been closed and their students reassigned to new schools that, through no fault of their own, simply don’t have the space, capacity, supplies and tools needed to begin instruction.

One receiver school in Mayagüez, La Escuela Manel A. Barreto, opened on Monday with a section of the school still without a roof, debris and garbage in the corridors, and classrooms without chairs, teachers or teaching materials. The school received students from three closed schools that were all in good condition and fully staffed with qualified teachers.

In many locations, school simply didn’t start in full. In some instances, the Department of Education has planned on half-day instruction in order to accommodate large numbers of students.

Where classes were able to start, students in now-overcrowded receiver schools are being taught in cramped classroom spaces often shared across grades — or, in some cases, outside in the scorching heat. For example, children in a fourth-grade class in Aguadilla crowded into a small gazebo for their first day of school.

Despite the overcrowding, some 2,700 teachers were left unassigned at the start of the school year. Hundreds of teachers reassigned to new schools didn’t have any space in which to work with children.

In the week before schools opened, thousands of untenured teachers were subjected to humiliation and abuse, forced to wait for hours in the heat to take a required drug test. Untenured teachers, no matter what level of experience they have, essentially have to be rehired every year. Many still have no assignment this year despite the vacant teaching positions at hundreds of schools.

THE DEPARTMENT of Education has come under intense scrutiny for announcing the purchase of temporary FEMA trailers to be used as classrooms.

According to a document obtained by the Federación de Maestros de Puerto Rico, each trailer costs the department $42,050. Officials have announced they will need about 200 trailers.

The irrationality is lost on no one: One of the primary reasons given for school closures was under-enrollment. But now the Department of Education is spending millions on trailers while closed schools in excellent condition remain shuttered.

The chaos caused by Secretary of Education Julia Keleher and her department has impacted all public school students. But it has been particularly hard on students in special education programs.

Children with special needs have been abandoned — left without school assignments in some cases, and without transportation to schools when they have been reassigned.

Educators and parents from one school slated for closure, the highly regarded Lorencita Ramírez School, are furious that students with special needs have no help to draw on in their new school placement.

In an interview with Radio Isla, Jasmine Berrios, the mother of a child with special needs who attended Lorencita Ramírez, talked about the impact of the closure:

First of all, Lorencita School meant for me that my daughter learned how to speak. I worked for five months to get my daughter into this school, and now they want to close it...There’s just no way that I could have ever imagined that they could close this excellent school, and that I would be in this struggle. But when something is wrong, and it affects your child...Well, here I am. In the struggle.

ALL OF this is part of the reviled plan of Education Secretary Keleher to dismantle public education in Puerto Rico.

The day before school started, Keleher appeared at a press conference with Gov. Ricardo Rosselló as he announced the island’s first charter school — to be known as an Alliance School, since charters are being branded in Puerto Rico as an “alliance” between the private and public sectors.

Unlike in the U.S. where they are already part of the educational landscape, charter schools have been kept at bay in Puerto Rico by educators’ strikes against privatization.

But this time around, the government of Puerto Rico and the dictatorial Fiscal Control Board — established by Democrat Barack Obama to run the island’s finances — are using the destruction of Hurricane María to push through charterization.

In an interview with CBS at the end of July, Keleher reiterated her earlier stated position that the hurricane disaster was an “opportunity” to break up the public school system on the island. Speaking about the more than $500 million in funding to advance privatization, Keleher said:

No one wanted the storm. But I am not going to misspend the opportunity, pardon the pun, that I have to redirect these things that would have never been available to Puerto Rico. [Without the storm], I would have been short $300 million. I wouldn’t be able to do the things that I am going to be able to do for teachers and for kids.

But if there are millions previously unavailable to the Department of Education, it begs the question of why hundreds of schools are being closed and thousands of teachers pushed out of their profession.

One of Keleher’s favorite answers is that 42,000 children have left the island with their families, so hundreds of schools are under-enrolled.

The exodus of families with children could have been prevented if more resources had been devoted to public services such as education, electricity and health care in the weeks and months following Hurricane María. Families didn’t leave because they wanted to leave their beloved communities, but because they felt they had no choice.

But the reality is that Keleher is closing schools that are pillars of their communities — and many of them aren’t under-enrolled at all.

THAT’S WHAT I learned when I visited Luis Muñoz Rivera elementary school in Dorado. It was closed down this year despite having an enrollment of almost 229 children, and expecting 250 for the 2018-19 school year. The student-to-teacher ratio was about 12 to 1 — ideal for a school with a high number of children with special needs.

The Muñoz Rivera campus is in excellent shape. There was little damage from Hurricane María, and, located less than half a mile from the Atlantic Ocean, it is certified as tsunami-ready.

Muñoz Rivera didn’t appear on Keleher’s initial list of schools slated for closure, which was released in the spring. But teachers say that after an approximately four-minute visit on a Sunday, with the mayor of Dorado in tow, Keleher switched it out with the other school in Dorado that was due to close.

Keleher’s visit was hardly a visit at all, say teachers. She never spoke to any educators or family members and didn’t even set foot inside the campus. She got out of her Black SUV with tinted windows to take a look at the school from the gates — and then was off again.

Then, on June 22, after the end of the school year, a Department of Education representative came to Muñoz Rivera to tell the school director that they would not open their gates in September. There was no written announcement, no hearing, no process. To this day, the community of Dorado has not gotten any explanation for the closure of their beloved school, nor have any of their many letters or petitions been answered.

Seeing no other recourse, on June 28, parents began occupying Muñoz Rivera. In an interview with Wapa TV, school social worker Priscilla Hernández, speaking with tears in her eyes, summed up the feelings of her community:

We are tired of the abuse. Our hearts are broken. Not for ourselves, but for our children. They come here [to the occupation encampment], and they suffer, because they want to see their school reopened. They haven’t even had vacation because they have been here in the struggle with us.

Meanwhile, the teaching community was reassigned to far-flung schools all over the island. One Kindergarten teacher, Juanita Maymi, who taught for 29 years in the same classroom in Dorado, was originally offered a position at a school two hours away from her home.

THE IMPACT of the closure is deeply felt in Dorado.

One teacher talked about the student with severe anxiety and depressive tendencies who had come by the encampment. He hugged the educators and didn’t want to let go. Afterward, the teacher told me that the student had been losing hair and sleep over the possibility that he would go to another school. Another student was vomiting from the stress of the closure.

Mother after mother and teacher after teacher had the same message when I talked to them at the encampment, summarized by one of them:

We are not objects. We are not furniture that can be moved from place to place. We are not boxes to be consolidated. We are human beings who cannot just be uprooted without consequence. Our children have already been traumatized by the hurricane, and now Secretary Keleher is traumatizing them all over again.

Speaking at the encampment in front of the school on August 1, Johanna Morales, a special education teacher, said:

We are here today to demand that the Secretary of Education reopen our school. This school is unique. All of the educators in this school treat children with care and love, and treat them like family. Parents leave their children in this school with their minds at ease because they know that we love their children as our own.

The next day, having still not heard a single word about the closure of the school, a group of mothers went to Keleher’s office to try to get her to speak with them in person. Instead of taking time with the families and children who came out in the August heat, the Secretary of Education barely gave them a glance as she breezed by into her air-conditioned office, protected by guards.

As Keleher went about her business, the community of Luis Muñoz Rivera picketed outside, singing chants of resistance and defiance.

In the week leading up to the first day of classes, Luis Muñoz Rivera teachers, parents and students had a partial victory.

Instead of having the teaching staff spread all over the country, the entirety of the staff was reassigned to the receiving school for their students. While they continue to struggle for complete reinstatement of their school, this small victory is important to their ability to support students and keep the backbone of the school intact.

AS THE experience of the Luis Muñoz Rivera school shows, the educational communities of Puerto Rico aren’t taking this new wave of assaults lying down.

The Federación de Maestros de Puerto Rico (FMPR) has called for a one-day strike on August 15, and is working in coalition with other forces that want to stop the frontal assaults on public education.

During the year since María hit Puerto Rico, and in fact for years before, the FMPR has been involved in struggle after struggle to stop closures and make schools into a site of resistance to the privatizers. In the days after the hurricane hit, the union was already in touch with educators in New Orleans to learn about how the disaster capitalists would exploit Puerto Rico’s tragedy.

The larger and better-funded Associación de Maestros, which is the local affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), has done very little to oppose privatization of the public school system. This won’t come as a surprise to U.S.-based teachers who have seen the AFT sitting at the table with education privatizers for years — and with little to show for it, but worse working conditions and crumbling schools.

Now, in Puerto Rico, the privatization effort is underway in earnest with the announcement of the first charter in the gentrifying university neighborhood of Rio Piedras in San Juan.

As teachers go out on strike on August 15, the media will blame them for disrupting the education of children. But there is nothing that the teachers of Puerto Rico could do that could be more of a disruption to their students than what the Secretary of Education and her boss, Gov. Roselló, have already done and are continuing to do.

On August 15, educators, with the support of their communities, will strike for dignity and respect, and to keep education in Puerto Rico public. They will strike to demand that the more than $500 million in federal dollars promised for education in Puerto Rico be used to build the schools that children deserve, not overblown administrators’ salaries and FEMA trailers.

They will demand that they receive the salary increase promised by Roselló, and that unassigned teachers be reinstated. They will demand that the department honor seniority rights when making job placements. They will demand the rollback of school closures and small class sizes, with a maximum ratio of 20 students for every teacher. And they will demand an end to the charterization of the school system and the removal of Keleher as Secretary of Education.

On Wednesday, August 15, the educators of Puerto Rico will be teaching us all one of the most important life lessons: While we don’t know what the future will bring, we don’t have to settle for the present. When we stand up and fight, we can win the future and the schools that we deserve.

Further Reading

From the archives