RICARDO ROSSELLO, the governor of Puerto Rico, recently signed an education reform bill that will introduce charter schools to Puerto Rico for the first time in history. The signing of the bill took place while students, parents, and teachers have been relentlessly protesting the proposed closure of 283 schools across the island. The current government has blamed the school closures on lack of funding for repairs and low enrollment due to families fleeing the Island post-Hurricane Maria.
The promotion of charter schools over public schools is a common theme in low-income communities of color following a natural disaster. While emergency services flooded into Houston during its hurricane recovery, Puerto Rico was mostly left on its own to rebuild after extensive damage to all of its infrastructure including electricity, schools, and hospitals. The only attention Puerto Rico’s schools received from the federal government was when US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos helped advise Rosello – a long-time supporter of privatization – in the drafting of the legislation that would introduce charter schools to Puerto Rico.
The vision of Rosello for the education system in Puerto Rico has already taken place in New Orleans, another American community of color ravaged by a hurricane and abandoned by the federal government. Hurricane Katrina was used as an opportunity for the dismantling of a public education system that primarily served low-income black students.
In both cases, the neglect of the United States government created a man-made disaster on top of a natural disaster. In Puerto Rico, like New Orleans, thousands died, and thousands more remain without basic services like healthcare and education many months later.
Currently there is not a single public school in the New Orleans School District. The purported successes of the charter school movement have not come to fruition. Charter schools have maintained segregation, decreased accessibility to local schools, and have underserved students with special needs. They have reduced the number of veteran black teachers and administrators from the impacted communities in a favor of teachers with no background, connection, or cultural competency in the predominantly black school district.
This shift has also lead to numerous school closures as well as investigations into the misappropriation of funds, refusal to serve students deemed undesirable, and inflated administration salaries. This lack of transparency and cultivated neglect has driven new organizing from students and teachers to oppose the current system’s lack of diverse curriculum material and lack of culturally competent educators. Puerto Rico now stands as the next testing ground for the school choice movement.
Over many decades, educators and local leaders have worked to establish a public education system for the 1,466 schools that is primarily staffed by Puerto Ricans. Teachers and communities on the island have organized to defeat numerous attempts to prioritize English language instruction over Spanish. Fewer than 20 percent of Puerto Ricans speak English fluently. Spanish is still the primary means of communication in day-to-day life for the overwhelming majority of people on the island. Profit-driven charter school companies neither appreciate nor respect this reality.
Puerto Rico must be able to develop a public education system that serves the needs of the communities and the people who call Puerto Rico home. The temporary exodus of families, due to the lengthy rebuilding process, cannot become an opportunity to pillage the public education system.
As Boston public school teachers, we would urge national and local leaders to do something so simple and so valuable: listen to the teachers of Puerto Rico. Puerto Rican teachers unions have already proposed alternatives to school closures and communities have organized to state their demands for maintaining their local public schools.
Privatizing the public schools will dramatically reshape the educational system in Puerto Rico in the image of corporate America. Puerto Ricans deserve public investment in their education system, not an abdication of responsibility to outsiders whose first priority is lining their own pockets.
Jeremy Aponte is a member of the BTU Puerto Rican Educators Group and Jessica Tang is president of the Boston Teachers Union.