Threat of Education Privatization in Puerto Rico, Post-Maria

by Vins

On September 20, 2017, Hurricane Maria swept through the island of Puerto Rico. It was categorized as the worst hurricane the island has seen in years. In its wake, all public buildings were shut down. Without power or a variety of other services, all schools on the islands were closed. With classes suspended and relief efforts arriving slowly, students have been forced to remain at home, awaiting assistance from the government and other relief agencies. As Aída Chávez and Rachel M. Cohen reported for the Intercept, some schools re-opened immediately, “determined to take in as many students as possible in the hopes of giving even a bit of order back to their lives.” However, this “guerilla campaign” to reopen schools is, Chávez and Cohen reported, “running headlong into a separate effort from the top, to use the storm to accomplish the long-standing goal of privatizing Puerto Rico’s public schools, using New Orleans post-Katrina as a model.” Delays by the Puerto Rico Department of Education to reopen schools may be linked to efforts to permanently close and privatize Puerto Rico’s public schools.

Before Maria, there were 1,113 schools across the island, all of which were closed due to the wreckage from the hurricane. With more than half of these schools still closed and damaged, and the Department’s refusal to open habitable schools almost two months later, there are conversations among officials and business leaders about whether Puerto Rico should follow New Orleans’ post-Katrina solution by privatizing education. Since Hurricane Katrina, the New Orleans school system consists almost entirely of charter schools, the only city like this in the United States. Puerto Rico may follow a similar path if another course of action cannot be decided upon. This privatization would be an opportunity for economic gain, seeing as monetary circulation would increase with a larger number of private and charter schools, following the island’s turbulent financial history which has led to the closure of 200 schools pre-Maria. Some, like Jeanne Allen, founder and CEO of the Center For Education Reform, see Puerto Rico’s current educational landscape as an open opportunity to start thinking about how to “recreate the public education system,” and improve an accessible public system. She describes the movement toward privatization as something that is far too exclusive, and is a “grass tops” movement as opposed to a “grass roots” movement. CEO’s and corporations could gain massively through privatizing education, and the general population would be generally disadvantaged due to the creation of a system that is inaccessible to the average Puerto Rican student.

Media coverage of efforts to privative Puerto Rico’s schools and the potential impacts is almost non-existent. News of the schools in Puerto Rico has been focused on power shortages and the immediate school year—including how students will need to go to school into the summer, and whether there will be enough power to run schools—as exemplified by CNN’s coverage. There is no talk of the possible privatization of the public education system, how this reflects what occurred in New Orleans after Katrina, and what privatization would mean for Puerto Rican society. Additionally, there hasn’t been a strong or consistent analysis of why students are not returning to school.

Source: Aída Chávez and Rachel M. Cohen, “Puerto Ricans Fear Schools Will Be Privatized in the Wake of Hurricane Maria,” The Intercept, November 08, 2017, https://theintercept.com/2017/11/08/puerto-rico-schools-system-with-post-katrina-new-orleans-as-the-model/.

Student Researchers: Jayare Alvarado,  Jordan Barbarotta, Juan Martinez-Muñoz, Lyndsey Raucher (University of Massachusetts Amherst)

Faculty Evaluator: Allison Butler (University of Massachusetts Amherst)