Puerto Rico teachers will strike for their schools

March 16, 2018

With teachers in Puerto Rico preparing for a one-day walkout, Monique Dols reports on growing anger with the government's privatization drive in public education.

TEACHERS IN Puerto Rico are planning a one-day strike on Monday, March 19, to protest school deform legislation, passed by Puerto Rico's House of Representatives and due to be voted on by the Senate, that would devastate public education in Puerto Rico.

Schools will be closed, and educators and their supporters will gather at the Capitol building in San Juan while the Senate convenes to debate and vote on the bill.

If passed by the Senate and signed by Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, the legislation would open up the island's 1,100 public schools to be turned into charter schools. It would also institute a voucher system, under which families could get public school money to pay tuition at private schools.

The legislative attack comes as no surprise to those who have stood against Rosselló, who announced in early February that he would close 307 of the island's public schools.

The governor has also stood by his widely detested, DeVos-like Secretary of Education Julia Keleher. Keleher, who is neither Puerto Rican nor has any real experience in education, seized on the devastation of Hurricane Maria to intensify a drive for weakening union rights, implementing a longer school day and school year, attacking pension and health care and preparing the way for the charterization of public schools.

Puerto Rican teachers rally against threats to public education following Hurricane Maria
Puerto Rican teachers rally against threats to public education following Hurricane Maria (Federación de Maestros de Puerto Rico | Facebook)

Pedaling the same lies that have been used to push charter schools from Philadelphia to Chicago to New Orleans, Keleher claims that privatization will encourage innovation in education, cut down on government inefficiency and help increase student achievement.

Speaking at a school in Arecibo, Kelher told a group of students: "[E]veryone is going to take to the streets and say, 'You want to privatize our schools!' I don't. It's still public money. Your money."

But this is exactly what the teachers' unions of Puerto Rico are objecting to. The private management of public funds, educational or otherwise, has proven to be a disaster over many years--and specifically during the reconstruction effort in Puerto Rico over the past six months.

As the experience in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina shows, the creation of charter schools and voucher systems creates further chaos and lack of coordination in already struggling school systems--and entrenches, rather than dismantles, inequality and segregation.

And because charters are run like private companies, there is little oversight. Charters have control over admission and discipline, which has in many cases led to harsh treatment of children of color and discriminatory practices against students with special needs. In California, for example, a study conducted by three public advocacy organizations documented the widespread "fraud, waste and abuse" in the charter school system.

WHILE EDUCATION deformers claim to "put students first," the reality is quite different.

At the end of February, for example, Puerto Rico's Department of Education tried to discipline a student who rapped in opposition to Keleher's leadership of the system.

During recent legislature hearings, students were prevented from witnessing how lawmakers decided on their educational fate. Students were told that there wasn't enough space for them to attend, though video footage of the sessions shows empty seats.

Maybe lawmakers in Puerto Rico were worried about the "bad optics" of another takeover of a Capitol building by the public--like we've seen from West Virginia to Oklahoma in recent weeks.

Rosselló has admitted that the decision to turn toward the charter model was made without considering the growing body of evidence that charter schools don't work for students. Rosselló said his decision was made "without consulting and without ascertaining best practices"--but still insisted that charterization would produce better schools.

As a part of Rosselló's pro-privatization campaign, he spent time at the end of February visiting charter schools in Philadelphia.

While in Philadelphia, he congratulated the ASPIRA charter school network for its work. Maybe he didn't realize that the charter chain has been under repeated investigation for financial mismanagement--and that the U.S. Department of Education's own measures have given it failing grades.

OPPONENTS OF the education deform legislation in Puerto Rico say it will usher in the "Whitefish of education"--a reference to the tiny Montana-based company awarded a multimillion-dollar contract to repair the electrical grid in Puerto Rico, despite its small size and lack of related experience.

As Edwin Morales Laboy, vice president of the Federación de Maestros de Puerto Rico (FMPR), wrote, privatization has already proven to be a complete failure in Puerto Rico:

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.

Calls for Keleher's resignation have gained momentum amid a "Whitefish" moment of her own--after she arrogantly and insensitively defended a $17 million contract awarded to a private company to teach "values" to the schoolchildren of Puerto Rico.

The deal raised questions about why the teaching of "values" should be subcontracted to a private company, rather than be seen as a central part of the job of the thousands of unionized school social workers, whose livelihoods are under threat because of the new legislation.

When asked this question, Keleher blamed the social workers union for "management" and "leadership" problems.

Keleher's "do it for the sake of the children" stance is galling, considering the fact that she has never set foot in a classroom except for her time as an adjunct professor at George Washington University's School of Business.

All along, Keleher's profit-driven motivations have come through. In a tweet in early February Keleher revealed her anti-union agenda: "Is resistance to Charters about the kids, or is it about union interests?"

KELEHER'S AND Rosselló's frontal attacks on union rights and public education in Puerto Rico are not going unopposed.

The very people--educators, families and students--who they have steamrolled in the process of trying to dismantle public education are getting organized and are ready to fight back.

In a moving Facebook Live video posted on the evening that the education deform legislation passed in the Puerto Rican House, FMPR President Mercedes Martinez, made a call to action:

We have no alternative than to take to the streets, compañeros, in a broad, united front to defend public education. We will meet and we will unite to announce a National Assembly of Education Workers. It is our moment to act.

Next Monday, they tell us that they will vote on this in the Senate. Then it will go to the governor for his signature. The moment has arrived for us to defend public education in this country. And we will.

The education deformers may feel confident right now that they can get away with their plan to exploit the devastation of Hurricane Maria to ram through profit-making in public education. But defenders of public schools in Puerto Rico have decided to take a stand.

The FMPR worked hard for months to clean, rehabilitate and reopen schools themselves when no one from the Department of Education was anywhere in sight. The union and its allies in the Frente Amplia en Defensa de la Educación (Coalition in Defense of Public Education) have been laying the groundwork for this struggle, school by school and neighborhood by neighborhood, for months and even years.

In 2008, educators in Puerto Rico waged a victorious strike against privatization of the public school system. There are currently no charter schools in Puerto Rico because of that strike.

Thus, the educators of Puerto Rico struggle have experiences and lessons from the past to draw on as they build toward the future of our movement.

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