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Betsy DeVos Watch: The Shock Doctrine, Puerto Rico and Public Education

November 30, 2017

It has been over 2 months now since Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico. The devastation left thousands homeless, many without power and thousands more which have sought refuge in various parts of the US.

While this is considered old news in the hyper-up to the minute US news cycle, it is important that we all not forget about Puerto Rico, especially since the island is at risk of ongoing efforts to privatize everything from electric power to education.

On November 8, US Secretary of Education visited Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands. DeVos stated, “The dedication shown by educators, administrators and local leaders to getting students back in the classroom, and their lives back to normal, was evident at each stop. The U.S. Department of Education will continue to assist them in every way we can.” 

This is an interesting statement from Secretary DeVos, especially since there is no evidence that she met with teachers during her brief visit. In fact, teachers were protesting her visit for fears that Betsy DeVos would implement a kind of shock doctrine as it relates to public education on the island. 

According to one source, Members of the Federación de Maestros de Puerto Rico rallied at the headquarters of the Department of Education in San Juan to demand a meeting with (Puerto Rican Secretary of Education) Keleher. The FMPR union has charged Keleher with deliberately keeping many of the island’s schools closed, even after teachers and other volunteers have cleared them of debris and cleaned them, because she intends to permanently shutter them.

Last week, independent journalist Vijay Prashad wrote of the ongoing crisis in Puerto Rico: 

“Of Puerto Rico’s 1,113 schools, only 119 have reopened. The teachers’ union, Federación de Maestros de Puerto Rico, has suggested that the government has slowed down rebuilding of schools in order to push for their privatisation. They say that the plans for the rebuilding of Puerto Rico are similar to what was done in New Orleans after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when schools fired teachers and created a network of private charter schools. The Federación worries that much the same will happen in Puerto Rico. The failure to reopen schools is one sign of such a plan.”

The concerns raised by the teacher’s union in Puerto Rico, and many others, about the potential privatization of public education on the island are real. Author of the Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein, believes that all we need to do is look at the recent example of Hurricane Katrina and how that catastrophe provided an opportunity to privatize the public education system in New Orleans.

Bill Quigley, who has been writing about and monitoring the impact of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans, has written a great deal about how the Shock Doctrine was applied to public schools. In a very thorough and thoughtful article from 2007, Quigley writes: 

Before Katrina, the process of creating a charter school was legally required to first have the approval of parents and teachers. Supporters of this experiment, many if not most of who do not have children in public schools, repeatedly argue that this experiment creates “choice” for at least half the parents and students. The irony is that few parents had any choice at all in creating the experiment involving their children.

The very first public school converted to a charter was done on September 15, 2005, while almost all the city remained closed to residents. The school board did not even hold the meeting in New Orleans.

While President Bush may have been slow to react in other areas after the storm, he made a bold push right after Katrina to help convert public schools to charters.

On September 30, 2005, the U.S. Department of Education pledged $20.9 million to Louisiana for post-Katrina charter schools. The federal government offered no comparable funding to reestablish traditional neighborhood or district schools.

In early October 2005, Governor Blanco issued an executive order which waived state laws which required faculty and parent approval to convert a regular public school to a charter school. The Orleans School Board then used this waiver to convert all 13 schools in the less-flooded Algiers community of New Orleans to charter schools without parent or teacher approval.

Then all four thousand public school teachers in New Orleans, members of the largest union in Louisiana, were fired – along with support staff.

US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos had made it clear that these types of changes to public education are exactly what she would like to see continued and expanded while she holds her post within the Trump Administration. This is a story that we need to continue to follow and monitor that could be devastating for the students, teachers and parents in Puerto Rico.

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