August 13 marked the first day of school for more than 319,000 students and 22,000 teachers in Puerto Rico. But instead of feeling prepared to start strong a year after Hurricane Maria, school communities across the island braced themselves for the manufactured mess to come.
Governor Ricardo Rosselló, in collaboration with the Puerto Rican legislature and Education Secretary Julia Keleher, signed Law 85 in March. It decreed a voucher system, charter schools, and that 252 schools would be closed (on top of the 190 that were closed in 2017 as part of a neoliberal agenda that aims to undermine public education).
The result is that an island fraught with uncertainty developed another level of chaos with school choice reforms all too familiar to those in post-Katrina New Orleans.
While schools in perfectly good condition in Puerto Rico were closed, others still in disrepair became receiver schools. Before the year even started, teachers in buildings with part of the roof missing reported that they were forced to teach outside in the heat or in ill-prepared rooms with no air conditioners and insufficient furniture and supplies. Overcrowding led to the Department of Education ordering FEMA trailers to accommodate the overflow of students.
Meanwhile, Keleher gloated in an interview that the FEMA funds were going to make things possible like never before, but the trailers cost more than $1.6 million. Many teachers and parents in Puerto Rico are incredulous and at a loss for why, at that cost, the government didn’t just keep some schools open. Each trailer has a cost of $42,000, while the savings of closing a school is $47,000, according to the secretary of education. It is difficult to imagine the pandemonium communities faced on what should have been a week of reconnecting and settling into routines.
And it gets worse.
A full week before the start of school, education authorities told more than 2,000 displaced teachers to report to regional offices to figure out unresolved placements. At the two-story building in Arecibo, parking spilled onto the streets and shopping centers nearby while teachers and varying specialists began to amass in the courtyard. Some, anticipating long waits, brought their own folding chairs. As they gathered in clusters at different doorways, by subject, grade, or specialty, people began to talk to one another.
One educator had been an art teacher for more than 13 years at the same middle school and was reportedly going to be placed miles away as a kindergarten teacher. Her teaching license includes early childhood, but she never taught in that area.
As a single parent, she feared the worst: “I’m a union member, but no one in the Department of Education has been able to answer even basic questions. I’m afraid this means I don’t have a job.” She wasn’t alone. Frustrated, confused, and anxious, the hushed voices echoed into a glaring pattern of mismanagement and complete lack of regard for these professionals.
The greatest disruption is happening to students with special needs. Nearly 40 percent of the total student population in Puerto Rico receives some type of special education service. Adaptive physical education teacher Karla Domena had been at José Antonio Dávila Middle School. This summer, she was jarred to discover that she was replaced, through a “randomized computer process,” by someone with less seniority. The students’ parents, upon hearing this, immediately engaged an attorney. Karla said, “Something that could have worked out internally is now going to be something big. It’s unnecessary.”
With the consolidations, parents are filing seemingly countless special education complaints and teachers say that the receiving schools are not adequately equipped.
Parents of Luis Muñoz Rivera Elementary School, located in Dorado, just west of San Juan, organized a 39-day encampment of the school during the summer. They feel as if they were being treated like pawns. With incredible fortitude, special education teacher Johanna Morales, kindergarten teacher Juanita Maymi, and their colleagues showed up daily with grandparents, aunts, uncles, parents, students, former students, and teachers as they took shifts occupying the school, helping each other with supplies and sustenance, in order to protest its closure.
One afternoon, sitting in a circle under a portable tent cover, teachers from other closed schools visited the Luis Muñoz community. Each shared their stories. Adneri Rivera Santiago, a Spanish high school teacher and mother in the Hipolito Caldero Elementary School in Corozal, spoke about their school being shut down by Keleher a year ago. She explained how they were well into a partnership with a unique forestry program where the children learned (at no cost to them) sustainable farming.
Pierette Hidalgo, a teacher from the John F. Kennedy Elementary School in Toa Baja, spoke with incredible frustration at how they were able to stave off closure twice before. When they won the right to stay open the first time, the community celebrated by painting beautiful murals that no one will see again. “How can we rebuild when they take everything away from us, refuse to fix things, and then blame people for leaving?” she cried.
The Teachers’ Federation of Puerto Rico (FMPR) leadership and its executive board members remain connected and active in all of these places. The Federation has been vocally opposed, since day one, to the proposed reforms recognizing them as tools of privatization and a form of neocolonialism. They participated in the public hearings and presented elected officials with a 25-page deposition against the charter bill, in which they included proposals on how a true educational reform should look. Letters in support of the FMPR and public schools were read and given to legislators, but they did not listen.
As the semester started they announced a one-day work stoppage. As a result, Gov. Rosselló announced he’d give a 7 percent salary increase to permanent teachers and would provide 2,000 contract teachers with tenure. This is the effect of the fight announced by the FMPR. On Aug. 15, hundreds of teachers and parents protested the disorganization and mismanagement in the Department of Education, and made clear demands that were crafted with communities.
Union activists have been tirelessly organizing with communities, recognizing that these are the same stories of communities across the United States. The fight will go on, even as disaster capitalism on steroids wants to destroy the public education system. But as Eugenio María de Hostos, a Puerto Rican patriot and educator once said: “There is no triumph without struggle and no struggle without sacrifice.”
Mercedes Martínez is the president of Federación de Maestros de Puerto Rico. Jia Lee is a New York City Public School special education teacher, member of the Movement of Rank and File Educators, and the current Lt. gubernatorial candidate for the Green Party of New York.