A Hurricane in the Classroom: Inside the Schools Ensnared in Puerto Rico’s Privatization Fever — and How Its Teachers Are Fighting Back

[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.

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Guns Out of Our Schools, Propaganda Out of Our Classrooms

By the editors of Rethinking Schools

Just a week after 14 students and three staff members were murdered at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in February, President Donald Trump predictably — and enthusiastically — endorsed the National Rifle Association’s prescription for school shootings and our nation’s gun violence epidemic: more guns and give them to teachers.

“You give them a little bit of a bonus, so practically for free, you have now made the school into a hardened target,” Trump said, according to The New York Times, giving a nod to the NRA’s mantra that the “Only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

Survivors of the Parkland shooting couldn’t help but find some dark irony in Trump’s stance and that mantra when a couple months later the NRA announced that guns would be banned from both Trump and Vice President Mike Pence’s speeches at their annual convention.

Parkland student Matt Deitsch wrote on Twitter: “Wait wait wait wait wait wait you’re telling me to make the VP safe there aren’t any weapons around but when it comes to children they want guns everywhere? Can someone explain this to me? Because it sounds like the NRA wants to protect people who help them sell guns, not kids.”

Deitsch is right, of course, and his comment exposes an underlying issue in any conversation about gun violence in schools in the United States: This is fundamentally an issue of profits versus the health and security of our young people.

[This editorial is from Rethinking Schools’ summer issue, which was released earlier this month. To read articles from the rest of the issue and to subscribe to the magazine, visit www.rethinkingschools.org]

The arms industry, with political protection from the NRA, is given the “right” to sell weapons without meaningful restrictions at the expense of young people, our schools, and our communities. Gun-related deaths are now the third-leading cause of death for Americans younger than 18, according to a study published last June in Pediatrics.

Trump and the NRA might propose that teachers be armed, but educators have largely rejected the premise as both unsafe and unwise. A Gallup poll conducted shortly after Trump made his comments about teachers and guns found that three out of four opposed the idea nationally and the vast majority felt arming staff members would make schools less safe.

And indeed, stories of students injured by teachers who have accidentally discharged weapons are becoming all too common. Many of them sound like a March incident in Seaside, California, when a high school student was hurt when his teacher accidentally fired a shot into the ceiling and it ricocheted.

Trump and others who initially called for teachers to be armed after Parkland have also been noticeably silent on the matter since teachers in several states went on strike and started storming state capitols in protest.

But there’s much more that we as educators can do — besides dismissing yet one more unsurprisingly bad idea from Trump — to combat gun violence and get guns out of our schools.

One of our roles as teachers is to guide students to examine the roots of an issue. When we talk about the Bill of Rights and the roots of the Second Amendment, we can expose the popular mythology that surrounds it — that this is somehow about individuals resisting government oppression — and lay out its true intent: to defend and deepen white supremacy.

In her book Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz shows that the Second Amendment began in slave patrols and in collective measures by white farmers to steal Indigenous people’s land and then to “defend” themselves from those same people who were unwilling to be victims of that theft.

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Keeping Kids Safe — at the Border and in Our Classrooms

By the editors of Rethinking Schools

Kina, the 6-year-old daughter of one of our editors, walked into the living room when the TV was on last week and saw a visual of children huddled under mylar blankets. “What are those kids doing in there?” she asked. “Are they in jail?”

Our editor, her mom, explained that the kids had been separated from their parents, and that their parents were probably in a different jail.

“Aren’t grown-ups supposed to keep kids safe?” she asked.

All of our children are asking themselves these questions right now, no matter how sheltered we think they might be from the past weeks’ horrific events. As educators, we are all responsible for thinking about how we’ll respond to Kina’s question. While we may not confront our students’ questions until the fall, we’re living this summer in a state of emergency.

Children — at least 2,342 — have been torn away from at least 2,206 parents since the Trump administration’s zero tolerance policy went into effect in early May. And, of course, these numbers might be much larger, as the Trump administration has shown that it doesn’t care about tracking children and their parents. These children are living in child prisons, and their families have no way to find them or learn of the conditions under which they are being held. Kids have been taken across state borders to at least 100 shelters in 17 states, some operated by private contractors who benefit financially from this manufactured crisis, a brazen display of cruelty.

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Transforming Teacher Unions in a Post-Janus World

By Bob Peterson

“I’m from Wisconsin, I’m from your future!” I start off my speech. Despite my love of science fiction, I’m not talking to sci-fi fans. I’m talking to teacher and other public sector activists at a conference in New York City on the future of labor and public institutions.  

“My future, your future,” I continue, “started when Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker dropped the bomb in 2011 with an unprecedented attack on teachers, their unions, and the public’s schools.” A few months earlier, Walker had been elected governor during the 2010 Republican sweep of statehouses across the nation, the same year the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision enabled the 1 percent to tighten their stranglehold on many state and federal elected offices. 

Fast-forward to 2018 and the future has arrived in the name of Janus v. AFSCME, a case that the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule on by midyear that could severely cripple public sector unions across the country.

Walker’s attack and the Janus litigation are similar not only because they directly attack working people and their right to organize, but because both have been bankrolled and directed by a network of billionaires, right-wing foundations, think tanks, and organizations that intend to destroy unions and inflict grave damage on public institutions.

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However, these plutocratic assaults have inspired determined resistance during the past few years, sparking a new model of teacher unionism and an unprecedented rise in rank-and-file militancy exemplified by teacher strikes in Chicago, Seattle, and West Virginia. The subsequent flurry of walkouts and strikes in Kentucky, Oklahoma, Colorado, Arizona, and North Carolina are further evidence that educators are learning to fight back. 

Despite this resistance, the victory of the plaintiffs in the Janus case would gravely damage public unions by abolishing “agency fees,” through which non-union members are required to pay their “fair share” to cover the costs of non-political activities of unions such as the securing of improved wages, benefits, and working conditions for all members.

AdolfoValle_union copy

In the 22 states that currently allow collection of agency fees, reduced union income would mean slashed budgets and cuts in unions’ capacities to protect members and support progressive social policies and candidates. For example, in Wisconsin — where the loss of agency fees were part of a broader assault on unions — the percentage of unionized public employees dropped from 46.6 percent in 2010 to 18.9 percent in 2017. Hundreds of union staff were let go, union offices sold, and some locals disappeared completely. 

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Puerto Rican Teachers and Students Protest Budget Cuts and Privatization on May Day


By Kate Aronoff

In a May Day event largely overlooked by mainland U.S. media, strikers representing various unions, opposition parties, and social movements all converged on San Juan’s banking district, known as “Milla De Ora” (the Golden Mile) for a national strike.

Pushing back against a slew of austerity measures being unveiled by the Washington-appointed Fiscal Oversight and Management Board (FOMB) and Puerto Rico’s ruling New Progressive Party, strikers took the opportunity to bring their fights to their opponents’ doorsteps, rallying throughout the day at their offices in locations scattered throughout the city.

By the end of the day, police were firing off several rounds of tear gas and wrestling students to the ground.

Striking teachers from around the island began Tuesday outside the Department of Education. Just a few days earlier, several of those same teachers had been pepper sprayed during another demonstration against the fiscal control board’s plan to close 283 public schools on the island and replace them with charter schools that likely won’t be subject to regulatory oversight. That education plan was one of a rash of new proposals released by the board (colloquially known as “la junta”) just a day before certifying them in mid-April, which together lay out dramatic transformations for everything from labor law to energy.

“It’s a colonial situation that we are facing,” Mercedes Martinez, president of the Teachers Federation of Puerto Rico (FMPR is the Spanish acronym), tells me. “The fiscal oversight board are the ones telling the governor what to do. If he was somebody else he would say no. They are not here for the people, they are here for themselves.” In addition to school closures and charterization of the island’s school system, FMPR is also fighting proposed cuts to public sector pensions, which the board has suggested should be cut by 25 percent.

Inspired by opposition to those plans and, in part, by striking teachers in Oklahoma, West Virginia, and Kentucky, FMPR voted in an assembly several weeks ago to strike on May 1. (At that point, Arizona’s walkouts had not yet happened.)

So under a blazing sun Tuesday, union members in the education bloc wore different colors to denote their respective affiliations. FMPR wore yellow, and many members hoisted matching yellow signs denouncing the fiscal plans as “abusive and criminal,” and the board itself as a colonial body. As the location of Tuesday’s demonstration might suggest, one of the main targets — for teachers and demonstrators more generally — was Puerto Rico’s controversial education secretary Julia Keleher, tapped by Gov. Ricardo Rosselló for her record as a Bush-era Department of Education staffer turned education consultant. Continue reading

Making People’s History in Arizona: Educators Rise Up


By Sarah Giddings

My house has recently become muddled with protest signs, event flyers, red T-shirts, and simply, chaos. How it came to this point resides in the story of how I decided to volunteer to be a liaison for the #RedForEd grassroots movement in Arizona.

I decided to move to Arizona from British Columbia, Canada, 18 years ago to teach. My decision would take me on a journey of unforeseeable experiences that entailed teaching on Native American reservations, in charter schools, in public schools, and having a second job as an adjunct professor for Northern Arizona University.

I eventually found myself involved in a powerful, historic, educator-led grassroots movement that has revolutionary possibilities.

I was drawn into this movement at its conception. In my 18 years of teaching, I have experienced low and stagnant salaries, overcrowded classrooms, increasing work loads, deteriorating buildings, and fewer resources and support. The climate worsened after the economic recession hit, and a growing number of teachers, including myself, began to feel overwhelmed, demoralized, and paralyzed in a system that worked to undermine our ability to be the effective and meaningful teachers that we could be. Not surprisingly, we were on our way to a teacher shortage crisis. Although there were efforts to initiate much-needed change, the broader sentiment among educators in the state was one of compliance; we live in a conservative “right to work state,” in which any form of striking was illegal. What could we do? This compliance, however, would soon shift to empowerment and action.

The catalyst, the stone dropped in the pond that had reverberating effects, was the West Virginia teachers’ strike. This strike created a connectedness amongst educators, and through this connectedness it provided a solid platform from which we could share and affirm our struggles, our indignation, our hopes, and the love and commitment we have for our profession and our students. Most of all, however, West Virginia, also a right to work state, opened up our eyes to an empowering alternative reality of what is possible if we collectively organize and come together in solidarity. The Arizona Educators United (AEU) #RedForEd was formed out of this realization, and the movement rapidly gained momentum throughout Arizona. After a decade of severe budget cuts and misappropriation of more than a billion dollars, voucher schemes, and the rising corporate tax cuts handed out to billionaires, educators found themselves backed up against a wall. We were no longer going to be complacent about a system that valued profit over the lives of human beings. We had to take a stand for our students, and for public education as a whole that was under attack.

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The March for Our Lives and National Day of Action Against Gun Violence: Two Opportunities to Involve Young Children

By Bob Peterson

During my three decades of teaching elementary school I was regularly impressed with how much my students knew about what was happening in the world, and even more impressed by their desire to learn more.

Yes, eyebrows were raised, and at times, parents called principals questioning why my students were discussing certain topics. Sometimes other teachers wondered why my students would volunteer to miss recess to organize a Stop Child Labor action or why the Kids Against the War club would pass out black arm bands to classmates every Friday.

The concern was that “these children are too young to discuss these issues.”

My response, “Really? Do you know what our students’ lives are like?”


One year when one my student’s cousins was murdered, we spent time talking about gun violence and studying gun ownership and homicide statistics during math time. At one point, I asked my 10-year-old students how many had ever held a handgun. More than half the class raised their hands, most of the boys. Being a skeptic who had early in my teaching career learned that 10-year-olds had a propensity to exaggerate, I pressed my students to describe the gun and who owned it. I was stunned. Many of the students not only reeled off the name of the person, but also knew the name of the particular handgun.

“Too young” to discuss things that directly effect their lives? I disagree. Despite parents’ best attempts to shield their children from the frightful and worsening problems that surround us, we are rarely successful.

The massacre of 17 teenagers and teachers at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, is only the most recent tragedy that challenges parents and educators alike.

Should we try to shield young children? If not, how do we talk with them about such horrific events?

An editorial in last summer’s edition of Rethinking Schools addressed this issue:

Young children live in the world, just like we do. They listen to snippets of news reports on the radio; they catch clips of news broadcasts on the television; they hear things from their siblings, parents, and classmates. They watch movies and play video games that encode social tensions and global conflicts. And most importantly, in this time of intense political upheaval, they feel the stress and anger that adults around them are feeling. For many children, poverty, racism, and anti-immigrant hysteria have a daily impact on their lives. When we choose not to deal with these issues explicitly and sensitively, we effectively leave children alone with their misunderstandings and fears.

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