[SPECIAL REPORT: Education “reformers” are using the disaster in Puerto Rico to close hundreds of public schools and convert much of the school system to charters. But teachers, parents, and students are fighting back. Update July 23, 2018: Since this story was written, Puerto Rico Superior Court Judge Iris González declared part of the sweeping education reform law enabling charter schools unconstitutional, stating that only the University of Puerto Rico and municipalities around the island can operate schools. A government spokesperson has said they will appeal the ruling, and it remains unclear what this means for schools set to open in mid-August.]
By Kate Aronoff
San Juan, Puerto Rico — It’s cool and bright in Lourdes Torres Santos’ second-floor classroom, thanks in part to the afternoon rain that helped both clear away the day’s humidity and fill the lobby downstairs with shallow puddles. There are window unit air conditioners, but they haven’t worked since Maria, the Category 4 hurricane that pummeled the island last September, leveling its electrical infrastructure and leaving an estimated 4,645 people dead. Out behind the school is a covered basketball court still in disrepair eight months on from the storm.
For the most part, though, Torres’ República del Perú is a normal school in San Juan. And like many others across Puerto Rico, students, parents, and teachers came together just after Maria to get its facilities up and running. But reopening the school turned out to be more complicated than just physical cleanup. When it appeared the Department of Education wouldn’t open the school — even after it was ready — those same students, parents, and teachers came together again.
“We realized that they were slowing down the process . . . every day they changed the information and all the criteria changed,” said Torres, 31, who teaches middle school at República. In response, she helped organized two demonstrations, each time shutting down traffic on Calle Loíza, a busy road nearby, with around 100 people. “Then things started to move on and the school opened” about two months after the storm, she said. Like many of the teachers resisting the closures, Torres is a member of the Federación de Maestros de Puerto Rico (FMPR), which has been at the leading edge of the fightback against privatization on the island, coordinating direct actions, boycotts and more.
But just a few weeks before we spoke in early May, with students back and classes in full swing, República was named by the island’s Department of Education as one of 283 schools that would be closed at the end of the school year.
The closures are part of a broad sweep of austerity policies being unveiled by Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s administration — including Education Secretary Julia Keleher — at the behest of the Washington-appointed Fiscal Oversight and Management Board (FOMB), the agency tasked with reining in the island’s $74 million municipal debt.
Asked if she thinks the Puerto Rican government has taken advantage of the devastation wrought by Maria to push through an ideological agenda, Torres doesn’t skip a beat.
“Let’s talk about the shock doctrine,” she said, referencing Naomi Klein’s 2008 book detailing how states and corporate interests take advantage of crises from Haiti to Iraq, natural and otherwise. In the book, Klein also details how — just after Hurricane Katrina — the right-wing Heritage Foundation conspired with conservative politicians to gut the city’s public school system.
“But before we talk about the shock doctrine, we have to acknowledge that Puerto Rico is living under the reality of colonialism,” Torres said. Puerto Rico has been a commonwealth of the United States since 1952, after being acquired by the United States from Spain — the previous colonizer — during the Spanish-American War.