Just months after hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico's governor, Ricardo Roselló Nevares, introduced neoliberal policies in January, Senate Project 825 and Congressional Project 1441, in the U.S. colony which calls for a structural overhaul of the education system.
Thousands of protesters, including, teachers, students, and family members took to streets in Puerto Rico in March to protest government's decision to implement measures to privatize US colony's education sector among others.
The protesters marched past San Juan’s Capitol building to La Fortaleza, the governor’s mansion, with signs reading “Defendemos la educación pública” (We defend public education) and “No a los charters buitres!” (No to the vulture charters!), Lauren Lefty, noted in the Jacobin article, 'Disaster Capitalism and Vulture Charters.'
According to Lefty, while the people are marching against austerity measures, the local leaders like the secretary of education are devoting their time to undermine and downplay these protests by "tweeting photos of classrooms with students and reporting misleading school opening numbers," along with "most news outlets and social media commentators declared the strike a significant disruption."
According to Common Dreams, the education historian, Diane Ravitch said, "The Governor imagines he will save money by handing public money over to charters and vouchers. Does he know that charters demand equal funding and choose the students they want? Does he know that voucher students get worse results than their peers in public schools? Probably the hedge funds that own the Commonwealth’s debt didn’t tell him
Puerto Rico is now open to edupreneurs, no-excuses charters, and corporate exploitation of its children."
Mercedes Martínez Padilla, president of the Federación de Maestros Puertorriqueños (FMPR) teachers union, noted these reforms are intended to hollow out the public sector, thwart labor rights, and sell the island’s public education system to the highest bidder, Lefty wrote in her piece.
"Public education in our country, like in all capitalist countries, has been under attack for many years."
"We are disappointed the powers that be in Puerto Rico have bought the wrongheaded DeVos and Trump spin that charters and vouchers are a panacea," American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten said in a statement, according to Common Dreams.
But the austerity measures in the U.S. colony go way back and Puerto Rican activists pointed out that Hurricane Maria is the being used as an excuse by the government to implement these neo-liberal reforms which were planned much earlier.
In May 2017, much before Hurricane hit the island, Puerto Ricans saw massive protests against the austerity agenda in the education sector. The agenda has largely been pushed by previous administrations, along with the unelected, fiscal control board (“La Junta”). The protesters were further inflamed when an IMF-backed, hedge fund–commissioned report sought school closures, with school-choice policies in 2017.
In the aftermath of the hurricane, the activists are deeming these newly introduced policies as the “Whitefish” of education reform - a reference to the controversial energy contract awarded after Maria — and “vulture charters," likening their tactics to the vulture funds that profited off Puerto Rico’s debt crisis.
Puerto Ricans have a long-standing history of resistance in the sphere of education. As Lefty pointed out that since 1960's and 1970's, campaigns promoting community control of schools, along with the curricula focussed on Black and Puerto Rican studies, with slogans, "Seize the schools, que viva Puerto Rico libre!" formed an essential part of the education reform.
But despite a history of strong resistance, "the island’s political leaders and investors are hoping the post-hurricane confusion and demobilization will allow them to push their agenda through," Lefty noted.
Many Puerto Rican education groups, like the Asociación de Maestros Puertorriqueños (AMPR), have tried to negotiate with the US senator, Keleher, and the Senate, but have largely failed.
"Despite a few amendments to PS 825 in favor of teachers’ salary and benefit protections, the Senate approved the law on Tuesday ( March 20) with the most significant structural components intact, including charters and vouchers," Lefty added.