A Hurricane in the Classroom
Inside the Schools Ensnared in Puerto Rico’s Privatization Fever — and How Its Teachers Are Fighting Back
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 Repblica. In response, she helped organized two demonstrations, each time shutting down traffic on Calle Loza, 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 Rossell’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.
Today, colonialism in Puerto Rico can take the form of bodies like the FOMB, which has to approve whatever budgets and fiscal plans Rossell’s administration proposes. The island’s governmental agencies, in turn, are tasked with carrying out the board’s mandates by order of PROMESA (Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act), the federal legislation that created that body and a bankruptcy-like judicial process for dealing with the debt.
“They say that the U.S. has to come to manage the structure and the budget ‘because you Puerto Ricans have not been efficient,'” Torres said of the FOMB, explaining that it fits into a long history of forces outside the island arguing its residents can’t be trusted with their own government. “That’s been true of the Spanish colonizers and of the U.S. invasion. It’s been the same message over and over again.”
Torres is quick to point out that República del Perú has fought off shut-down attempts before. From 2010 to 2015, 150 public schools in Puerto Rico were closed. After classes ended last summer, another 179 were shut down, a change premised on declining enrollment. Most everyone I speak with in education notes that there’s very little happening after Maria that wasn’t happening before — though the scale of closures proposed after the storm is unprecedented.
The day after the most recent closures were announced, Torres said she and other teachers discussed the issue with their students. “We asked them: ‘What can we do?’ The students said: ‘Let’s protest,’ and they got to work right away making signs.”
The FOMB’s recently certified fiscal plan calls to shave $63 million in education worker salaries and $6 million from other expenses in 2019. “To accomplish this,” the board noted, the Puerto Rico Department of Education (PRDE) “could consolidate its footprint (including schools, classes, teachers, and administration), modernize facilities, revise the curriculum, and equip teachers with what they need to succeed.”
Education Secretary Keleher has justified this most recent round of closures as a response to declining enrollment numbers, dwindling prior to the storm and dropping off precipitously post-Maria. But the numbers don’t quite add up.
An estimated 17 percent of Puerto Rico’s student population has left the island after the storm. Yet Keleher’s department has set out to close 40 percent of its schools by the start of the next school year, displacing as many as 60,000 students as part of a sweeping legislative plan to transform the island’s education system and introduce charter schools and a voucher system.
Not every decision is determined by the FOMB, though. The board’s plan calls for closures over an extended time period, through 2022; Keleher’s plan closes schools almost immediately. Asked why her timeline is so accelerated, Keleher cites the need to redistribute funds among schools to account for post-storm population changes and damage to school buildings.
Though she’s downplayed the comparison since, Keleher — a veteran education reform consultant — has called post-Katrina New Orleans a “point of reference” for what could happen in Puerto Rico.
That process cratered the city’s teacher union and left many students — particularly those with emotional disabilities — without a school. Before Katrina, teachers in the New Orleans school district had an average of 15 years of classroom experience. Today, most teachers have taught for less than five years, according to a study from the Education Research Alliance at Tulane University.
Keleher says her department considered a number of factors in deciding which schools to close, from the status of schools’ physical infrastructure to enrollment numbers to the kinds of access barriers that closures might impose. “You have to come up with a matrix that balances these factors given the geography,” she told me.
Holding a doctorate in education, Keleher wrote her dissertation on data-driven approaches to school system administration, and threw out a dizzying number of statistics in our half-hour conversation. It follows, then, that PRDE adopted a data-driven approach to the closures.
“The reality of this year unlike last year is that we have a fiscal plan that identifies right-sizing targets for the DOE. The numbers came back and says we should close 350 schools,” Keleher said, adding that it was a figure they eventually pared down. “You wind up having to make trade-off choices to figure out what the right configuration of schools is.”
There’s ample reason to believe federal Education Secretary and longtime charter advocate Betsy DeVos has had a hand in determining what those trade-offs will be. In an email, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education (ED) told Rethinking Schools that “The federal government hasn’t played a role in advising Puerto Rico. All of these decisions will be made at the local level.”
But Keleher says she’s been in close touch with the Department of Education since October, and that “in the beginning” she spoke with officials there as often as three times a week. “They’ve been there to connect us to other people and to advise. . . . I couldn’t ask for more,” she told me, though noted that “in no way did they shape our local decisions.”
Photos posted to Gov. Rossell’s Twitter account also show him, Keleher, and DeVos meeting in early November, together “itemizing the areas that need the most attention in order to restore our education system.” Presented with evidence of ED’s involvement, the spokeswoman rephrased that the department “routinely provides technical assistance and is happy to do so.”
Ire at Keleher has been so pitched over the last few months that it inspired an island-wide hashtag: #JuliaGoHome. Aside from the details of the plan and spate of recent closures, much of the anger directed at her is rooted in her earning $250,000 per year, which means Keleher actually makes more than Betsy DeVos and more than 12 times Puerto Rican teachers’ base salary of around $20,000.
One sign at a May Day demonstration seemed to encapsulate Puerto Rican educators’ feelings toward the secretary. The top of a skinny 9-foot-tall banner featured an image of Keleher Photoshopped into a mugshot. With an arrow pointing toward her, capital letters at the bottom — in Spanish — read “SURPLUS.”
The School Closure Black Box
Teachers, students, and parents in Puerto Rico have been mostly kept in the dark about the plans for their schools, with information coming through union leaders, rumors, and the occasional press conference.
Aida Díaz Rivera, president of the Asociación de Maestros de Puerto Rico (AMPR), said that in her initial conversations with PRDE, she was told that schools would be selected for closure based on enrollment numbers, and that any school with fewer than 200 students would be shuttered.
But “as the list came out, we noticed that many of the schools chosen had 300 or 400 students,” Díaz said. “Keleher said also that they had been meeting with the communities [around the schools]. But as we interviewed parents, they said no one had come there and talked to them. No one knows how she chose those schools. We don’t know the criteria that were used.”
The selection process took place almost entirely behind closed doors, and many teachers, students, parents, and principals only found out their schools would be closed through a press conference Keleher held in April. After a public uproar following the announcement, Department of Education staffers went around the island to survey the schools slated for closure. Three days of observations later, five schools were taken off the initial list of 283 and two others were added to it. Still, many of the teachers I met with remain skeptical about how thorough those in-person evaluations really were.
Teachers say that the schools being closed down are high-performing, and in good physical condition, speculating that the department may be hoping to hand public schools with good facilities over to charter operators, though few saw much rhyme or reason to how many schools ended up on the closure list.
And it’s not only education reformers who are looking to transform Puerto Rico’s schools. República del Perú is located in the gentrifying neighborhood of Santurce, just a few hundred yards back from a stretch of pristine coastline. It’s not far from resort-dotted Condado, and sits along a road that provides easy access between the resorts, Isla Verde, and Old San Juan — three of the area’s most popular tourist areas. That the neighborhood is such a valuable prospect for developers is also why teachers, students, and parents at República are eager to keep the school open and public.
“The importance of maintaining public schools is to defend the freedom of public school: free, accessible, and providing a high quality of teaching,” Torres says. “We are placed in communities that have high poverty levels. Being here guarantees no discrimination, no segregation, and secures the fundamental right of education.”
It’s not clear that Keleher is working toward similar goals.
Ana María García Blanco is the executive Director of the New School Institute, a nonprofit that partners with public schools to integrate Montessori teaching methodology and train teachers in it. Unlike on the mainland, where Montessori schools tend to be either magnet, charter, or private schools, Puerto Rico has 42 Montessori schools that — like República del Perú — are public. In April, 15 were targeted for closure.
In her 30 years with the New School Institute, García has met with every education secretary that’s held the office during that time, and spoke with Keleher as soon as she took office. Because of Montessori schools’ positive reputation on the mainland, Keleher thought it only natural that the schools and their 12,000 students would transition into charters. García says the secretary offered “autonomy and more funds” if their schools became the first charter schools on the Island.
“I couldn’t accept. I couldn’t do that to my country. People here trust us. Why? Because our schools are good. We’re doing good work and nobody here is profiting from it,” García said, adding that the public Montessori school community had gone through a yearlong study and discussion of charters before deciding “they did not agree with the model.”
“We lost people, we lost jobs, we lost houses. Don’t take away my school that works — that was the message of the Montessori community,” she said.
Like the PRDE, García sees education reform as critical. She agrees with Keleher that schools should have control over their budgets. Unlike PRDE, she doesn’t see privatization as a viable path toward it, and thinks reforms should come through participation with teachers, schools, principals, parents, and students. “I define a school as one that is committed to all their children — where 40 kids enrolled in your 1st-grade level graduate well from high schools and have access to their next level of education,” she said, contrasting that definition with the testing and numbers-focused evaluation methods favored by pro-charter reformers.
“A good school is a school that gives schooling access to all the children of a barrio,” García said. “Making people compete for a good school is making people compete for a human right.”
Like Repblica, teachers and parents at Lorencita Ramirez De Arellano — also slated for closure — came together after Maria to get the school back up and running, and they also had to fight to get it reopened afterward. Before classes began early one Thursday morning at the (non-Montessori) elementary school in Toa Baja, I spoke with Brenda Cirino, a teacher there.
Cirino told me that they waited for “three or four weeks with the school clean and ready to open,” only to receive conflicting messages from the PRDE as to when they could start classes.
“Nobody came here to see our students or check our enrollment,” she said. The official reason given for the delays was that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had to approve each school for re-opening, but Cirino said it took months for them to finally arrive and give the go-ahead.
Cirino’s classroom is still dark, with just one dim light over students’ desks. For weeks after the storm, she said she taught without any electricity at all. Balancing out the lighting are walls colorfully decorated with educational posters, which — like the markers, books, paint, and more — were purchased by Cirino out of pocket. Other school supplies, like toilet paper, have been donated by parents, and they fundraised to purchase air conditioning units.
More than half of students at the school have special needs that require dedicated attention, and the percentage of special needs children in Puerto Rican classrooms (26 percent according to the Department of Education) is well above the national rate of 13 percent. In Cirino’s 14-person class, seven have special needs.
If the school is closed, all of its students will be transferred, driving up class sizes elsewhere in places that may not have the proper resources to support special needs students. And in poorer areas especially, many parents lack cars and districts have scant budgets for buses. If children have to go to a school several miles away, it’s reasonable to assume they may not be able to get there at all. Cirino would be reassigned by PRDE.
“We feel safe here,” Cirino added. “It feels like community, like family. And it’s not fair to take that away from kids. I’m an adult, I can adapt. But for a kid, a school is like a home.” On her phone, she showed me pictures her students drew and sent to Keleher to protest the closures.
One read “My school is like a tree — if you cut me, I die.”
“Brigida” in the Front, “Padilla” in the Back
Walking up to Jose G. Padilla — a public K-5 school named for the famed Puerto Rican poet and independence fighter — you wouldn’t know it was there. That’s because in 2010, the primary school was forced to merge its facilities with a selective science high school, Brigida Alvarez Rodriguez, which requires an entrance exam and application to attend. Thanks to its reputation, the school attracts the children of well-off local elites and politicians from around the island.
“Brigida” as the specialized high school is known, took over the front of the building and installed its name on the historic facade, relegating “Padilla” to the back in more ways than one. Inside the school, the difference is even more stark. Metal bars separate the two sets of students and walking around the second level, Brigida students can be seen through bars doing group projects just feet away from Padilla classrooms.
In 2014, Padilla, a working-class public school with a large Dominican student population, was forced to give up the auditorium after already ceding several classrooms. When Padilla had to give up its 6th grade, Brigida added a 6th grade. Around 50 public schools in the mixed rural and urban municipality of Vega Baja have been shuttered over the last several years, leaving Padilla as the main elementary school in the municipality’s urban area and placing an additional strain on its already limited resources.
“We used to be comfortable here, and now with these changes, we are not,” English teacher Violet Montalvo said. “We used to have the theatre and have activities there, like the science fair and spelling bee. Now all that’s gone.”
The scene offers a kind of cautionary tale, and a potential preview for the bifurcated education system that could emerge in Puerto Rico if charter schools take off.
“The Department of Education doesn’t listen to parents. We are an obstacle in their economic process, as if this was a company,” elaborated Sara Rodriguez, whose son and daughter have each attended Padilla. “You cannot put a price on the education of a child. It is a free right that we have and a civil right in the United States — the same civil rights that we have in Puerto Rico.”
“They think we are ignorant people; we are not ignorant people,” she added. “Just because these children don’t come from good wealthy families, doesn’t mean they don’t have the same rights.”
Minutes after arriving at the school, Rodriguez, Montalvo, and Janet Consado — another teacher at Padilla — presented me with a stack of documents, including a detailed Cronología Conflicto Padilla/Brigida. For years they’ve meticulously chronicled what’s been happening at their school, attempting to get the word out to local media and the government to no avail.
Now the Department of Education’s current closure plan states that Padilla and Brigida will fuse into a single K-12 school: Brigida.
Already there are issues and cries of illegality: Teachers report that students currently enrolled in the school haven’t been able to re-enroll unless they hold a GPA of 3.5 or above, meaning that siblings who have gone to the same school may well be forced to attend different ones come August if one has better grades than the other.
Initially, according to Keleher’s transformation plan, charters will be offered to around 3 percent of students in 10 percent of Puerto Rico’s schools. No clear oversight process has been established and, as of mid-May, the Department of Education had yet to submit bylaws that would create standards for school operators.
Earlier in the spring, the department released a list of companies interested in bidding to take over shuttered schools. Among the entities looking to buy them are a janitorial services firm, for- and nonprofit firms, as well as several churches. A measure passed last June exempts church-run schools from paying taxes on schools and exempts them from certain regulations, forbidding the government from having a say over the selection of teachers or curriculum.
By phone, I spoke with Cesar Cabrera, a robotics professor at the Polytechnic University of Puerto Rico and head of the nonprofit Techno Inventors Inc. The firm appears on the list of those bidding to take over a to-be-shuttered school at the start of the next school year. He initially hoped to start up two schools based on the project, one in Guaynabo and another in Bayamón, though now hopes to open just one. Techno Inventors runs robotics, science, and engineering camps for children, and provides training for teachers on science and technology.
Unlike other prospective operators on the list, Cabrera and his staff aren’t strangers to the school they hope to take over. Techno Inventors educators have relationships with the teachers and students at the small K-6 school they’re looking to run, Escuela Juan Roman Ocasio, after having partnered on several initiatives over the last several years.
“The only option they have to keep the school operating is us doing this kind of project inside the school,” Cabrera told me. He sees the closure as an opportunity to implement Techno Inventors’ science and technology-driven vision of education on a grander scale. “We want to change education,” he said. “We want to implement a different model for education. We are seeing that the students today are really interested in technology, but the traditional education means that they will have books, teachers . . . they have to write a lot. Now we are going to change that kind of education.” Keleher told me that schools specializing in STEM and business courses, as well as those offering bilingual education, will receive priority in the application process.
If his application is approved, Cabrera will need to get a school up and running by August. He lists things that have to get done by then: “I have to bring in people to manage the budget. Then I have to integrate people for professional development. The professors who are going to be working in the school need to receive professional development in different areas.”
Like everyone else on his 35-person staff, Cabrera has no experience with school administration. He has recruited a member of the Techno Inventors board — a private school director with 10 years of experience — to run the school, and said he is leaning heavily on other members of his board with education administration experience as he goes through the application process. He insists that the programs Techno Inventors run are similar enough to a school to merit the award. “We are not a school,” he said, “but we have teachers and directors and people from different schools. The operation is similar to a school.”
As Cabrera understands it, PRDE would own and maintain the school. Seventy percent of his per-pupil funding that Techno Inventors will use would come from the department, and Techno Inventors would foot the bill for the remainder of operations; like other charters that are part of public school systems in other cities, students won’t pay tuition to attend. While he’s confident his chosen director and the staff he will hire will be equipped to handle everything from special education to humanities, it seems hard to imagine all of these pieces will fall into place by mid-August.
Daniel Russe, who is overseeing the effort to bring charter schools to the PRDE, did his best to assure me that subpar applications will be screened out. He said they’ll be screened through several rounds of evaluations by panels chosen by the PRDE working off of a rubric. Applicants are also asked to show some level of buy-in from the community surrounding the school, and “somehow document how they take that into account,” he said, calling it “one of the main parts” of the application.
Evaluations were scheduled to conclude June 29, and applicants were to be notified as to whether they’ll open a school in mid-August by July 2, and sign charters on July 9 or 10 before undergoing preparatory training “concerning special education and all the public policy that we have to make sure that they comply with” from that point until classes start. “They are also subject to regular and surprise and impromptu visits,” Russe said, and will “undergo an evaluation prior to receiving the students, a week before they start operating.”
He also noted that the PRDE reserves the right to postpone a school’s opening if they don’t think it meets the requirements. “We’re not going to rush authorizing someone that does not meet all the criteria,” he said.
Still, it’s hard to see this plan and its rapid-fire timeline as foolproof. One of the most well-circulated stories post-Maria was about a novice electrical contractor, Whitefish Energy, that was granted a $300 million contract from PREPA — the island’s sole, public electric utility — to repair lines downed during the storm, which knocked out virtually all of the island’s grid.
Derided as cronyism and incompetence, the deal drew international condemnation, and was eventually canceled. While Cabrera hardly seems like the most ill-equipped of potential early adopters in Puerto Rico’s fledgling charter school system, it’s hard not to see the haphazard process by which schools are being auctioned off as an invitation from Keleher for Whitefish-type contracts to proliferate in Puerto Rico’s education system.
Testing and Tear Gas
Teachers in Puerto Rico have been among the most vocal in the fight against not just school closures and privatization, but austerity measures on the island more broadly. When we spoke, Cirino, the teacher from Lorencita Ramirez De Arellano in Toa Baja, was helping organize a boycott at her school of META, the island’s standardized tests that teachers say their students are wholly unprepared for after being out of class for several months. A few weeks later, around 100 schools around the island participated in the boycott.
Cirino and teachers around Puerto Rico have also been staging rolling protests outside schools and one-day strikes in opposition to the closures and charter implementation plans.
Those efforts — along with lawsuits, rolling strikes and massive demonstrations — are being coordinated around the island by the FMPR and its president, Mercedes Martinez.
“Puerto Rico is facing the biggest attack on all public services at once,” Martinez told me, echoing concerns voiced by virtually every teacher I’ve talked to. “Children lost their homes and their friends. Children have lost family members that have flown away as well. The government of Puerto Rico has stopped our children from truly recovering by trying to take away their teachers mid-semester.”
Martinez and other teachers were inspired by the wave of strikes that have rolled through West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona, and other states, often not just about raising teachers’ salaries and protecting benefits, but doing the same for a large swath of public sector employees.
On May Day, FMPR joined with several smaller education workers’ unions, university students, feminist movements, environmentalists, and other parts of organized labor for a one-day, island-wide strike and massive march on Milla de Oro, San Juan’s lux financial district where the FOMB has its offices. The day ended with police tear-gassing students from the University of Puerto Rico who were protesting deep cuts to higher education.
While FMPR has taken a leading role in pushing back against privatization, AMPR (which did not participate in the May Day demonstrations) is the only teacher union in Puerto Rico with formal bargaining power. That union voted to affiliate with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) last August, which has been supporting efforts against school closures.
There’s evidence the resistance is working. Shortly after May Day, 17 schools — including República del Perú and all 15 Montessori schools — were taken off the list. Teachers at six schools in the Arecibo region won an injunction against the closures in the Arecibo Superior Court, placing an immediate halt on closure processes, bringing the total number of targeted schools to 265. FMPR is contesting the closure of 38 other schools in the Puerto Rico Supreme Court.
“I feel happy that we resisted this,” Torres told me, explaining that República will remain open for a one-year transitional period before potentially being put on the chopping block again next year. “We can’t back down. This fight needs to go on, and the community knows that they need to protect this school as a public place.”
Out behind República, the translator and photographer working with me, Bryant Martinez, noticed that the trees are filled with pitirres, a type of tiny, common bird in Puerto Rico known in English as fighting birds.
There’s a saying about the small birds, he told me: Cada guaraguao tiene su pitirre. While there’s no easy English translation, it roughly means that every hawk (guaraguao) has his fighting birds, lifted from the fact that the pitirres can often be seen ganging up on hawks who invade their territory.
Almost always, they win.
Kate Aronoff is a writing fellow at In These Times and a contributing writer to The Intercept. This article was written in May/June.