Why are we repeating the mistakes made after Katrina in Puerto Rico?

By Joel Richards and Jessica Tang

 It has been eight months since a devastating hurricane hit Puerto Rico. Much has been written about the struggles of people there to recover basic community infrastructure: electricity, medical care, schools. There has also been a lot written about the influx of private businesses seeking to profit from Puerto Rico’s devastation. Instead of investing public resources to rebuild essential services, we are allowing wealthy outside interests to control the destiny of Americans who happen to speak Spanish and live just far enough away that we can ignore them.  

It’s a common story. Private businesses say they can help communities of color and they promise the moon. In the end, they show their true stripes, enriching themselves, and not the communities they should be serving. Following recent disasters like New Orleans and Puerto Rico, one business sector has been determined to reshape public services: the charter school industry. 

Following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, neighborhoods were destroyed and abandoned.  In 2010, a group of teachers visited New Orleans and were able to visit several charter schools that had taken the place of the public school system. Students attended classes in dilapidated trailers and old churches.  Multiple class grades were going on at once inside a single trailer.  All the schools we visited had these three things in common: inexperienced teachers, a disproportionate focus on testing, and a severe type of discipline.  

The trip was unsettling. The charter schools did not seem to be making an effort to help or empower, but to invade, profit, and force assimilation. Instead of rebuilding the schools as community centers that provide services for the neighborhood, these schools, run by wealthy private companies, seemed to drill rote learning and failed to consider the whole child. We didn’t see a focus on mental health, PTSD, or violence prevention; just on test scores. 

In Puerto Rico, it looks like the same strategy. The so-called “school choice” movement has descended upon the island. School choice is not an appropriate solution there. Outside companies, with no knowledge of Puerto Rico, focused on data and test scores, will not help rebuild communities.  The government should be empowering the teachers who have stayed in Puerto Rico and have stood by their students.  

“School choice” arrives in communities who have no choices, and this is their last choice. The influx of for-profit businesses follows the neglect and indifference of government toward low-income communities and communities of color. The privatization of schools is the franchising of children’s education.  Our governments have a responsibility to rebuild the public infrastructure of Puerto Rico, and especially its public school system.  

As Boston public school teachers, we are calling on decision makers to prioritize public education as a chief component of the rebuilding of Puerto Rico. We also encourage charter school teachers to join together, organize, and form unions as they have done here in Massachusetts in order to demand better working and learning conditions.

Joel Richards, a Dorchester resident, is a Boston Public Schools teacher. Jessica Tang is the president of the Boston Teachers Union