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Puerto Rico: Teachers and families protest plan to close hundreds of public schools after Hurricane Maria

Pushing back against ‘disaster capitalism’ measures
By Brad Sigal |
October 30, 2017
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Protest demanding reopening of Escuela Bilingüe Padre Rufo in Santurce, PR
Protest demanding reopening of Escuela Bilingüe Padre Rufo in Santurce, Puerto Rico. (Photo from FMPR facebook page)

In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria’s devastation in Puerto Rico, the Puerto Rican Teachers Federation (FMPR, for their initials in Spanish) has been warning for weeks that Department of Education Secretary Julia Keleher was going to use the crisis as an opportunity to try to close hundreds of Puerto Rico’s public schools. This is something that those in power have wanted to do for a long time but haven’t been able to due to resistance from teachers and communities defending their schools.

The FMPR has raised the example of what happened in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, when pro-corporate interests succeeded in destroying the public education system in the city in one fell swoop - all 7000 teachers were fired and overnight nearly the entire public school system was converted into charter schools. As FMPR president Mercedes Martinez said in an Oct. 29 press conference, “There [in New Orleans] the government privatized schools, fired teachers and closed schools. Here, they’re also trying to provoke thousands of Puerto Rican students to leave the island with their families.”

In Puerto Rico, public schools began to reopen the week of Oct. 23, a month after the hurricane. But the reopenings have been done in a chaotic and inconsistent way. A relatively small number of schools were opened last week, and many schools that have electricity and water and have been cleaned were not included in the list of schools to be opened. This lent credence to the view that there was actually a plan to keep many schools closed forever.

In an Oct. 30 interview with El Nuevo Dia, Education Secretary Keleher confirmed that getting rid of teachers and closing schools is indeed her plan: “Consolidating schools makes sense. They can go out and protest in the streets, but that doesn’t change the fact that we can’t go back to life being the same as it was before the hurricane.” In the same interview, Secretary Keleher also said that they would need to reduce the number of teachers.

Over the past week protests have started to break out in front of dozens of schools around Puerto Rico demanding that schools be reopened. These protests are multiplying. The FMPR has called a mass protest for Nov. 9 at 11 a.m. in front of the San Juan Convention Center, where post-hurricane governmental operations are headquartered, to demand the reopening of all public schools and oppose the policies of Education Secretary Keleher.

The union has responded strongly because they predicted just such ‘disaster capitalism’ maneuvers to try to ram through sweeping changes that couldn’t be implemented in normal times. FMPR President Mercedes Martinez said on Oct. 29, “Secretary Keleher has taken advantage of the fact that the country is in chaos and the teachers and school communities are still struggling to meet their basic necessities in order to ram through their plans against public schools. They think that people won’t be able to organize to respond to this new attack.”

While powerful forces want to take advantage of a national crisis to advance an agenda of austerity and reduction of public services like education, in Puerto Rico that agenda is already meeting strong resistance from teachers, parents and communities, and that resistance is sure to continue.

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