The Puerto Rican Department of Education announced Thursday that it would close 283 of the island’s public schools this summer.
Citing a decline in enrollment of nearly 39,000 students following Hurricane Maria’s battering of the island in September and severe financial problems stemming from the island’s fiscal crisis, the department stated that more than a quarter of Puerto Rican public schools are set to shutter.
This comes weeks after Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló signed into effect an educational reform law that authorized the creation of charter schools and use of school vouchers.
‘We are in the middle of a huge attack against public education’
Charter schools receive public school funds but are privately managed, often by for-profit corporations. They are almost always non-union and tend to hire young, inexperienced teachers who will work for less than their veteran peers. School vouchers divert public education funds to families who choose to send their children to private schools including religious schools. Since the school voucher covers only part of the cost of attending a private school, they mostly benefit wealthy families.
Hundreds of Puerto Rican students, parents, teachers and union leaders protested repeatedly in the months after Hurricane Maria as hundreds of the island’s schools failed to reopen. Noting the near-total privatization of the New Orleans public school system after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, they said they feared that the Department of Education would use the hurricane to further a pre-existing agenda of privatizing public schools for the benefit of private interests.
Rafael Feliciano Hernández, a former president of the Puerto Rican Federation of Teachers, spoke with The Indypendent about the Department of Education’s delays in reopening schools in November. “They wanted to close the schools for four months then to reopen them as charters,” he said. “We fought. We joined forces with the community.” Hernández and the other protesters succeeded in reopening more than 90 percent of public schools.
But with the latest news, protesters in Puerto Rico are taking to the streets again. Puerto Rico’s El Nuevo Día newspaper reports that the latest closures could displace more than 60,000 students and 6,000 teachers.
“We are in the middle of a huge attack against public education,” Edwin Morales, vice president of the Federation of Teachers told The Indypendent. More than 10,000 rallied in San Juan after Governor Rosselló’s education plan was announced.
Morales says the union will be moving to file a suit against the Department of Education in the coming days and added that teachers will participate in an island-wide general strike on May 1.
Students whose schools close will be sent to other schools nearby, according to the Governor’s plan. But Aida Diaz, president of Puerto Rico’s Association of Teachers, says the school closures could amount to a “massacre” in some municipalities, where as many as 50 percent of schools will be shut down, according to an interview with El Nuevo Día.
Hugo Delgado, who teaches physics at a vocational high school in San Juan that was closed for 72 days after Hurricane Maria, says his school will remain open, but he too worries about the consequences of Governor Rossello’s educational reform plan. “The decisions that are being taken by the government are making things worse,” he says.
Delgado fears that he could lose his job if the school is eventually downsized. “It would be a hit to myself. I would continue working as a teacher wherever I can find. It would feel like a great defeat not only to the working class but to the teachers.”
Jinnette Morales Díaz is the mother of a 12-year-old child with Down syndrome and other disabilities, who went on hunger strike outside the Department of Education building in San Juan in November to protest the months-long delay in reopening her daughter’s school. Although her daughter’s school was not on the list of schools to be shuttered, she fears her child will still be affected by the school closures if an influx of new students in the classroom means less one-on-one attention from the teacher.
“Our children are depressed. They are suffering a lot with all this and the government does not care. It is very cruel,” Díaz wrote in a Facebook message. “They take away our rights, they leave us unemployed, they close schools that are where the sons and daughters of workers go.”
Photo: Water-damaged books stacked on tables in the library of Instituto Loaiza Cordero in San Juan. Credit: Camille Baker.