Striking for schools and for Puerto Rico

April 3, 2018

On March 19, some 16,000 educators in Puerto Rico went on a one-day strike to protest education deform legislation known as House Bill 1441. If passed, the bill would open up Puerto Rico's public education system to charter schools and a voucher system. That same day, more than 10,000 educators, and their allies descended on the Capitolio (the capital building in San Juan) to send a strong message against the privatization of education to lawmakers, who debated the bill out of sight of the public, protected by rings of armed riot police. The protest was a strong show of force and by far the largest demonstration in Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria devastated and shocked the island six months before.

Edwin Morales Laboy, vice president of the Federation of Maestros de Puerto Rico (FMPR, the Teacher's Federation of Puerto Rico), explains the devastation this bill will cause and argues for the necessity of a longer strike in Puerto Rico in defense of public education, in an article written for the 80 grados website and translated into English by Monique Dols. The article was written before Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló signed the bill into law.

THE SO-called education reform legislation House Bill 1441 passed Puerto Rico's House of Representatives and Senate with toothless amendments that largely kept the most controversial and damaging aspects of the legislation in place.

Its supporters claim this bill is about reforming the education system, but it is striking how little it has to do with anything resembling true and meaningful reform.

The cosmetic amendments pushed through in the Senate maintain the opening up of the school system to the widely discredited charter school model and the imposition of a voucher system in which public funds can subsidize private school attendance.

In the name of "serving the students," the bill also destroys teacher autonomy and imposes dictatorial leadership in schools. The amendments themselves are nothing to celebrate, since they eliminate hard-won rights of educators with clauses that come straight out of a plantation handbook. Also, they seek to apply the new "labor reforms" to temporary teachers.

Puerto Rican teachers strike to defend public education
Puerto Rican teachers strike to defend public education (Federación de Maestros de Puerto Rico | Facebook)

Even a massive one-day strike, during which 10,000 educators mobilized in the streets around the Capitol building against the Senate bill last week, couldn't stop the frontal attack on public education. The Senate steamrolled the widely unpopular legislation through, despite the massive outpouring of humanity that stood together and united in defense of public education.

The FMPR and all of the educational organizations that are part of the Frente Amplio en Defensa de la Educación Pública (FADEP, the United Front in Defense of Education), along with other educators in the field, have spoken in a united voice against the elements of the government's proposals.

We have spoken clearly to the fact that both the charter school model and the voucher system are not legitimate educational proposals, but are business models wrapped up in reform language. Experience at the international level, on the other hand, has shown that the most successful schools let educators lead, while empowering students and their families with control over their educations.

We have also placed our own educational alternatives on the table, but they are falling on deaf ears. Our proposals can't be heard over the deafening clamor of big business.

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló has absolutely no experience in education, and his agenda is driven by forces from above which are completely foreign to education. They are looting public coffers and continuing to distribute income to sectors with the greatest economic capacity.

This administration is completely incapable of creating a new economic model that would actually promote growth and development. Instead of working to generate new jobs and opportunities, or addressing the crushing debt and pulling us out from under the despised Fiscal Control Board, this government continues pushing policies that enrich the few at the expense of the many.

The plan that the Fiscal Control Board will put in place, when it implements a new round of labor reform laws, will effectively declare war on working class families and place a "for sale" sign on every publicly owned sector of the government.

The actual content of the education reform reflects a sad reality. While the reformers claim to act on behalf of students, they actually couldn't care less about children or the future of the people in Puerto Rico.

If they did have these interests at heart, they wouldn't be planning to close more than 300 schools, which are mainly located in rural and marginalized areas of the country. Instead of working to strengthen the profession, they have made teachers more vulnerable and pushed educators to the brink.

With the firing of 7,000 teachers and a 25 percent cut to all public-sector pensions, they are pushing the most qualified and experienced educators out of the profession, while also discouraging the arrival of new teachers into the workforce.

The whole public sector is bearing the brunt of a one-sided class war. Such an attack requires our side to get together in order to wage a response that is equally generalized and organized.

At the same time that they are attempting to pass draconian measures against public-sector workers, the Rosselló government shamefully parades with functionaries and technocrats whose salaries match those of magnates and monarchs.

It's nauseating to contrast the vast panorama of the crisis with the seemingly unending wave of questionable government contracts.

One of the most notorious examples has been the $17 million contract awarded to teach a "Your Values Count" curriculum to the students of Puerto Rico, which has been driven by the Office of Ethical Government.

Using Puerto Rico's debt as an excuse, the country's wealth is being re-divided, and in the process, it is becoming more and more concentrated into the hands of the local and North American ruling classes. We are being pushed into a corner.

When we are pushed, when our backs are against the wall, we have no alternative--then we will have to fight back. History teaches us that it's in these moments of crisis that we can see huge social and political upheavals.

Against this project of so-called educational reform, with all its attacks on public education as well as our rights as workers, we have no choice but to strike. In every school and community, we must start to lay the necessary groundwork for a strike and be ready for an announcement for coordinated action from the FADEP.

But before taking this step, we will make one last effort to appeal to the governor: Put your finger to the wind and understand which way the wind is blowing. Understand that our communities will not stand for this disastrous attack on education. Listen to the people, don't sign the bill!

In order for real education reform to take place, it has to come from educational communities themselves, which know their own schools and situation.

If that doesn't happen, there is no doubt that there are many organizations that will go to court to claim that the law is unconstitutional. While this is certainly an inescapable fact, we cannot tie our hopes and dreams to save public education to a legal strategy, which will only tie us up in court.

Instead, we must link our hopes and dreams to the educators and communities who can not only defeat this destructive bill in the streets, but also build a movement that can democratically build an alternative for real education reform from below.

We stopped the privatization of education before, and we can do it again.

But in order to do so, it will have to be part of an unprecedented national movement that--in light of the attack on all fronts--can bring together different sectors, trade unions, communities, as well groups across the political spectrum. We will have to bring these forces together in order to have an impact and bring our demands to bear on those in the halls of power.

The union leadership is at a crossroads, and it is up to them to prove they are up to the task that this political moment requires. This is a choice that every sector will have to make, especially at a moment when workers rights are on the cutting board, and fascism has made a revival.

When it comes to the FMPR, our commitment to quality, public education and workers' rights is unshakable. We will not sell out. Rather, we fight all the way to the end.

We are at a critical historical juncture in which both the reorganization and crisis of capital are coming face to face with a class struggle that is preparing for a fightback.

The measures proposed by Rosselló and the Fiscal Control Board promises us nothing but misery and forced exile from our own land. The criminals in power want us to believe that this is the only alternative, but we know better.

This is not the country that we want. A country without work or opportunities, without health, without affordable and quality housing, without education, without security. A country that is made unaffordable by millionaires who make Puerto Rico their playground.

Our children do not deserve this kind of country. It's our responsibility to lay the basis for a future that is radically different than the one we live in now.

We can do it, but it will depend on the vast majority of people grabbing the wheel of history and turning it in favor of the poor and working people of this island. We can do it. And we will do it willingly, with determination, and above all through sacrifice.

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