Disaster Capitalism Strikes Puerto Rico’s Schools

The government’s plan to close 179 public schools and open charters has residents alarmed.

Hannah Wiley

“Emotionally, we are not back to normal,” says San Juan teacher Axamara Pérez, pictured here with her first-graders. (Photo by Bill Healy)

SAN JUAN, PUER­TO RICO — It’s Valentine’s Day at Eleanor Roo­sevelt ele­men­tary, and choco­late good­ies and Krispy Kreme donuts sit in the back of Axa­m­a­ra Pérez’s class­room. Her first-graders are eager to fin­ish their assign­ment so they can start the party.

Since Hur­ri­cane Maria hit in Sep­tem­ber 2017, to get them excit­ed about some­thing, you real­ly have to do a lot,” says Pérez.

It’s almost impos­si­ble to for­get real­i­ties on the island, which include hur­ri­cane recov­ery, a 12-year finan­cial cri­sis and dev­as­tat­ing aus­ter­i­ty mea­sures. The island owes bond­hold­ers $75 bil­lion, a result of mis­man­age­ment and a cen­tu­ry under a colo­nial super­pow­er. To save mon­ey, 179 schools have been shut­tered, and Puer­to Rico Edu­ca­tion Sec­re­tary Julia Kele­her announced in April that a quar­ter of the 1,100 remain­ing schools will close this summer.

Morale is low in the Eleanor Roo­sevelt com­mu­ni­ty, where some stu­dents still live with­out elec­tric­i­ty. Let­ters to par­ents receive no response, requests for par­ent-teacher meet­ings are ignored, home­work goes unfin­ished and teach­ers feel pres­sure to keep the school from closing.

Even though we are try­ing to get back to nor­mal — emo­tion­al­ly, we are not back to nor­mal,” Pérez says. She has worked at Eleanor Roo­sevelt for 19 years and is one of the ded­i­cat­ed staff mem­bers who have helped keep the school off the clos­ings list. Puer­to Rico’s pub­lic schools lost 8 per­cent of their stu­dents in the post-hur­ri­cane exo­dus. But Eleanor Roo­sevelt still has 279 stu­dents, well above the thresh­old of 150 that Kele­her sug­gest­ed could trig­ger a closure.

Kele­her saw in Hur­ri­cane Maria what she calls a real oppor­tu­ni­ty to press the reset but­ton.” In a sweep­ing edu­ca­tion reform” plan unveiled by Gov. Ricar­do Rossel­ló on March 29, Puer­to Rico is simul­ta­ne­ous­ly open­ing char­ter schools. Crit­ics wor­ry the plan will repli­cate what hap­pened to New Orleans after Hur­ri­cane Kat­ri­na: With the char­ter­i­za­tion of that school sys­tem, thou­sands of AfricanAmer­i­can teach­ers were fired to make way for a pre­dom­i­nant­ly white and inex­pe­ri­enced work­force. Kele­her has promised not to lay off per­ma­nent teach­ers, but about a sixth of Puer­to Rico’s teach­ers are on year-to-year con­tracts. Oth­ers wor­ry that their job descrip­tions will change or they will face long com­mutes over moun­tain­ous roads.

We are not like books that you move from this school to anoth­er school because they need them in anoth­er library,” says Noralis Med­i­na, who was trans­ferred when her small pub­lic school in Vega Baja closed three years ago.

The edu­ca­tion reform plan adds insult to injury for teach­ers who have seen their pen­sions repeat­ed­ly cut. In an NPR inter­view, Aida Diaz, pres­i­dent of the Puer­to Rico Teach­ers’ Asso­ci­a­tion, expressed anger that we are hav­ing mon­ey tak­en from our bud­get” for charters.

Teach­ers have led a wave of anti-aus­ter­i­ty protests and now, anti-char­ter protests. In a one-day strike on May Day, teach­ers protest­ing out­side the Depart­ment of Edu­ca­tion were tear-gassed.

At Ramon Luis Rivera, the only school in the rur­al town of Juan Asen­cio, par­ents voice their con­cerns about char­ters almost dai­ly, accord­ing to third-grade teacher Mil­itza Ramos Alicea. Enroll­ment is down and the school is slat­ed for clo­sure. Ramon Luis Rivera has a large spe­cial edu­ca­tion pop­u­la­tion, and par­ents fear their kids will be inad­e­quate­ly served at char­ter schools, or turned away entire­ly. They cite reports of main­land char­ters push­ing out low performers.

Ivette Del­ga­do is a retired uni­ver­si­ty pro­fes­sor who does com­mu­ni­ty work in Areci­bo, a city of 43,000 with an almost 50 per­cent pover­ty rate. She dri­ves past a closed school near­ly every day, a reminder of what was once a com­mu­ni­ty pil­lar. The depart­ment has not yet said what char­ter mod­els will be imple­ment­ed, but Del­ga­do and oth­ers fear that Keleher’s plan is to bring char­ter oper­a­tors and teach­ers from the main­land, cut­ting out local input and sev­er­ing the trust built between par­ents and teachers.

Del­ga­do sees the plan as yet anoth­er lega­cy of colo­nial­ism: We have to ask from down here: What are you doing with the money?” 

Han­nah Wiley is a reporter in Chica­go and a master’s can­di­date at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism.
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