Puerto Rico’s Teachers Battle for the Schools Their Students Deserve
On May Day, thousands of Puerto Rican teachers, parents, and students launched strikes and boycotts to push back against austerity measures that would close nearly 300 schools, lay off 7,000 teachers, convert public schools into privatized charters, and cut public sector pensions. I spoke with Mercedes Martinez, President of Teachers Federation of Puerto Rico, about the neoliberal attack on the schools and public sector, the worker strikes and boycotts of May Day, and the brutal response of the police.
Jesse Hagopian: It’s been incredible to follow the struggle for education that your educators have launched. The pictures of so many tens of thousands of you protesting were breathtaking, and photos of the brutal repression were hard to look at!
Martinez: Yeah, May Day was a day that we will never forget. [Thousands of] people, workers from different unions, housewives, religious people, environmentalists, feminists, everybody joined together. People were arrested. Police brutality was overwhelming but the first thing that people should know was that the strike was a total success.
Among the marchers were teachers, parents, and the Social Workers’ Association, feminists, electrical unions, water unions, and health unions. Each group started in a different location and then marched to the Gold Mile, where the bankers and the Fiscal Board are located.
The police kept getting in our way. They tried to block the road for us not to pass, but they could only block students—which is the part that’s getting exposure. They tried to block them all but we had negotiators from the lawyer's association marching with us and they were able to negotiate with police to stop them from obstructing the roads. There was a time we were stuck for ten minutes, we couldn’t go through. So we sat down, and we didn't move. The police didn’t move either so it was very, very tense.
Q: That’s terrible.
Martinez: It was like Robocops. They were blocking the entrance, and had some police officers dressed in green. We think they were mercenaries or military, but we don’t know. The ACLU started an investigation and Amnesty International requested an investigation, and Federal Judge Gelpi approved it.
It was brutal. Women were attacked, children were attacked, elderly people, students—all attacked. And the government is congratulating the police for their oppression.
Q: How did they try to justify that?
Martinez: They’re saying that it was the fault of the protesters because they should have stopped there where they told them to. But at one point the march stopped for about an hour. And a police officer told the people that if everything remained calm for fifteen minutes they would leave and let the march go on its way and finish. Then, after about eleven minutes, everything was still calm. But all of a sudden, they didn’t wait for the fifteen minutes, they just started shooting pepper spray and tear gas.
Then they started chasing the students back to their dorms and started arresting people at their houses. They were chasing after them the entire avenue which is more than seven miles, running after them for no reason. Then they arrest people, [at least thirteen] were incarcerated. Nineteen with no charges—some of them have citations—and only three of them were charged.
Q: As a teacher who has marched against school privatization and police brutality here on the mainland, I found it very hard to look at the photos of those vicious attacks.
I’m reading Naomi Klein’s new book, The Battle for Paradise: Puerto Rico Takes on The Disaster Capitalists. She points out that the education secretary of Puerto Rico tweeted one month after Hurricane Maria that New Orleans should be a “point of reference; we should not underestimate the damage or the opportunity to create new, better schools.” It’s the same playbook that left the New Orleans education system almost completely privatized with nearly 100 percent charter schools.
Can you tell me about the Financial Oversight and Management Board, and the imposition of the 2016 PROMESA law?
Martinez: Yes, by the way, Klein is going to participate in an event to support our struggle in New York City on June 6th at The Cooper Union.
About the financial board “dictatorship:” It has only seven members, who were appointed by the U.S. Congress, the vice-president, and past president Barack Obama. Our economy is under their control. When this American PROMESA law was established, they had been trying to implement severe austerity measures. The executive of the Financial Board is making $625,000 a year from our taxes, while they’re saying we’re in our biggest financial crisis ever. And this board has approval over all the fiscal plans for the country.
In their plan they want to lay off over 7,000 teachers, laying off thousands of secretaries, janitors, election workers, closing schools, reducing the cost of operation of the schools, so that's what's going to happen in the legislature. The Financial Board is also promoting a pension cut for all public employees and at the same time they approved that anyone 25-years-old or younger will no longer have to be paid the minimum salary. They are also eliminating the Christmas bonus that we have here.
Q: So I guess we could just call their fiscal policy now, “bah humbug!”
Martinez: Yes. And they approved as well a law to allow charter schools for the first time in Puerto Rico, effective next year—they want to privatize 10 percent of our schools!
Q: In many other cities, charter schools are draining even more public resources from the public schools. What are the other reforms they are proposing?
Martinez: They want to privatize everything except the debt. The $72 million debt, that they don’t want to privatize. They haven’t requested for the debt to be audited. They want the working class of Puerto Rico to pay for it, but it’s not our debt so that's why we are fighting back.
Q: Yes! That’s right. And what an amazing fight it is.
Martinez: They thought they were going to be able to scare us on May Day, but the people were so angry that the day after there were over a 100 people that went to another rally, where the tourist hotels and condos are located in Puerto Rico, and the police again used an excessive show of force.
Q: I was really excited when I heard you all were taking on standardized testing because they use these tests to label our schools failing so they can close them or privatize them.
Martinez: Well, here in Puerto Rico we have been trying to boycott these standardized tests for years. These tests are only about making millions of dollars for private tutoring companies that benefit from Title I, and don’t measure anything important.
We have a lot of communities tomorrow that are going to opt-out.
Q: We were amazed when we had around seven schools in Seattle boycott the MAP test. Yours could be the biggest strike against standardized testing ever!
Martinez: When you boycotted the tests in Seattle, I presented your boycott, and the “Scrap the MAP,” campaign to teachers here.
Q: That’s amazing.
Martinez: I remember I presented the MAP boycott to many teachers in Puerto Rico when we were starting to try to boycott tests here and people were very much inspired by your struggle. Everybody in the struggle for education in Puerto Rico knows about how in 2013 you all beat the MAP. Now we are organizing against the META-PR standardized test. But their plan is now to have teachers in Puerto Rico measured for the first time with the test. If the boycott doesn't work, teacher evaluations will be based on the results of the students’ standardized test scores.
They tried for the first time last year to give a grade to schools based on the tests, but they have not yet been able to do so.
Q: What can the educators, the parents, the students, and the activists, and the unions do here in the mainland United States to support your struggle?
Martinez: Well, you can spread the word on what’s happening here in Puerto Rico. You can definitely tweet at our Governor Ricardo Rosselló and our Secretary of Education Julia Keleher. I think we are going to start using the hashtag #DumpKeleher, we want her out of our Department of Education.
You can also keep do what you’re doing. You can keep the fight within your own cities because it is just the same fight all over. I have been inspired by the teachers of West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona. I got a chance recently to meet some of them and their struggle is our struggle. It's a global movement so we’re all in this together.
Jesse Hagopian teaches ethnic studies at Garfield High School in Seattle. He is a representative of the Seattle Education Association, an activist with Social Equity Educators, editor of More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing, and co-editor of the new book Teaching for Black Lives.