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New York Times: “The Disappearing Schools of Puerto Rico”

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The New York Times Magazine published a heart-breaking photo essay about the abandonment of schools in Puerto Rico, first because of its debt crisis, then because of federal privatization policy after hurricanes in 2017.

The Island has been strangled by financiers, then raped by DeVos-style policies, and the public schools were the victims.

The writer was Jonathan M. Katz.

It begins:

During the blazing summer of 2019, Puerto Rico was in tumult. Thousands of the islands’ residents marched shoulder to shoulderthrough cities. They sang, danced and demanded the ouster of the commonwealth’s negligent governor, Ricardo Rosselló — and, with him, the federal control board that holds economic power over the United States’ oldest remaining colony in the Americas.

The crowd’s ire was fueled in part by a sense of absence. Away from the echoing drums, down forgotten streets and across green mountains, the islands are emptying. Decades of abuse, austerity, corruption and now the ravages of climate change have triggered an exodus of people and money. As the summer wet season gives way to the wary hurricane watch of an ever-warmer fall, no evidence of this decline is more powerful than the islands’ hundreds of abandoned schools.

The photographer Diana Zeyneb Alhindawi and I spent weeks touring these monuments to neglect. Books and blackboards rotted in the humidity. Stray dogs made their beds beneath teachers’ desks. Some of the buildings had been left to addicts and thieves. In others, neighbors had refashioned empty classrooms into stables for horses, rabbits and pigs. Even in schools that remain in use, mold creeps, roofs are torn and gymnasiums sag like wet shoe boxes. Landslide-prone slopes loom, unrestrained, behind buildings filled with students….

Carlos Conde Marín School

Location: Carolina

Carlos Conde Marín was closed at the end of the 2016-17 school year despite protests from the community. As with many schools closed during the tenure of the former education secretary of Puerto Rico, Julia Keleher, the shuttering was sudden and swift. School materials were left to the elements, stray animals or anyone passing by. The school is seen here in May 2019, after the building was vandalized and also heavily damaged in Hurricane Maria. Gym buildings (directly above) were hit particularly hard because of their lightweight walls and roofs.

The hurricanes weren’t the beginning of the story, though. The disasters compounded a social and economic calamity that has been brewing for over a century. It arguably began in 1898, when United States forces invaded Puerto Rico, then a colony of Spain, during the Spanish-American War. Before the war, Spain had grudgingly granted Puerto Rico limited home rule, an attempt to forestall an independence movement. But with the advent of American rule, Puerto Rico fell deeper into colonial status. The islands’ people could not elect their own governor until 1947. They still cannot vote for president and have no voting representation in Congress.

Puerto Rico’s economy grew for decades, thanks to a series of tax breaks for companies from the mainland. Washington allowed the territorial government to borrow money by issuing tax-exempt municipal bonds and repay them with the rising revenues. When the last of those tax breaks ended in 2006, the economy stalled, leaving its government overleveraged and with few options. The commonwealth’s leaders began issuing riskier bonds that may have circumvented constitutional protections. Major lenders including UBS, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan and Santander have since been sued multiple times — some have settled — for underwriting them. In 2015, with $120 billion in bond obligations and unfunded pensions, the governor was forced to declare that Puerto Rico would stop making many debt payments.

Under an agreement signed by President Obama, Puerto Rico gained protection from lawsuits. In exchange, its economy fell under the control of a seven-member Financial Oversight and Management Board with offices in New York and San Juan. Instead of forgiving Puerto Rico’s debt, the board implemented a strict austerity regime, which has grown steadily more draconian.

Ramón Valle Seda Elementary School

Location: Mayagüez

After Ramón Valle Seda Elementary School, near downtown Mayagüez, was closed in 2016, neighbors began using it as a stable and an animal sanctuary. Police and education-department officials have tried repeatedly to kick out the animals. But the parents and children using the building want official permission, saying that will keep it from turning into a drug haven like the closed school across the street. This horse was taking a break from the sun in May 2019. Its name means ‘‘hurricane’’ in Spanish.

Theodore Roosevelt School

Location: Mayagüez

The Theodore Roosevelt School opened in 1900, two years after Puerto Rico was occupied by the United States, as the first U.S.-style high school in the western city Mayagüez. The school was renamed on the occasion of a visit by Roosevelt, who played a leading role in annexing the islands during the 1898 war with Spain. It later became an elementary school. It was ordered closed in 2018 and converted into a depot for books and equipment from other shuttered schools in the area.

Don Ignacio Dicupe González Elementary School

Location: Lares

Nature is reclaiming the classrooms at Ignacio Dicupe González Elementary School in Lares, in the mountains of western Puerto Rico, seen here in April 2019. Lares is known as the cradle of Puerto Rican independence for its role in an 1868 uprising against Spain and still proudly flies the revolutionary flag. But it has lost nearly a quarter of its population in the last decade, one of the highest percentages of any municipality. The school, which closed right before the hurricanes, sits in an almost monastic silence; the only sounds the songs of birds in a red flamboyant tree in the courtyard and the occasional blast of reggaeton from a passing car.

As conditions worsened, the trickle of people leaving for the mainland turned into a flood. Between 2009 and 2017, the population declined 12 percent, from 3.9 million to 3.4 million, according to the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College. The “Great Depression of Puerto Rico” had begun, José Caraballo-Cueto, an economist and associate professor at the University of Puerto Rico-Cayey, told me. “We have to acknowledge that the stock of human capital is decreasing,” he said.

The appointment of Julia Keleher as the Island’s Secretary of Education was a disaster. She fully agreed with the Trump administration’s determination to implement privatization with charters and vouchers. She was Betsy DeVos Without the billions.

Soon after taking office in 2017, Rosselló brought Julia Keleher, the founder of a small Washington education consultancy, to take over the fragile school system. Keleher, who is from the Philadelphia area, had a reputation as an expert at winning government grants. Indeed, her firm had recently obtained a $231,000 contract with the department she was about to head.

Keleher quickly embarked on a two-pronged mission to overhaul the school system. She pushed for the creation of semi-privatized charter schools and private-school vouchers. At the same time, she shut down hundreds of still-functioning public schools. Defending her actions, she later said: “Somebody had to be the responsible adult in the room.” Keleher, who is white, also likened the fury she received from Puerto Rican parents and the islands’ well-organized teachers’ union to the experience of being a racial minority…

At the end of the 2016-17 school year, Keleher ordered 183 schools shuttered, according to the Asociación de Maestros de Puerto Rico, the territory’s teachers’ union and Keleher’s most implacable foe…An estimated 160,000 more Puerto Ricans — another 5 percent of the population — have left since the storm. Keleher took the opportunity to further shrink the school system: Of the roughly 1,100 public schools left in Puerto Rico at the time of the storms, more than 250 simply didn’t open again. Most of those abandoned were elementary or middle schools. Some children who remained have since been forced to travel longer distances to attend classes, sometimes on dangerous mountain roads…

The territorial education department was promised $589 million in federal aid to reopen damaged schools, but as of March had received only 4 percent of the money; the rest expires at the end of April 2020. A United States Department of Education inspector general found that Keleher’s department lacked effective controls to prevent “fraud, waste and abuse.” Backlash from parents and the teachers’ union finally forced Keleher to resign in April. Three months later, she was arrested by the F.B.I. in Washington and charged with conspiring to steer contracts to associates at another consulting firm. She pleaded not guilty; the case is proceeding.

During her time in office, Keleher was paid $250,000 a year, while most Puerto Rican’s were living in dire conditions. She will stand trial for steering contracts to favored firms.

The tragedy documented in the Times’ photo essay is the abandonment and destruction of the Island’s schools at the same time that the chief education official was intent on privatizing the schools in service to austerity.

The parents and teachers cared about the children. The U.S. government and the now-deposed government of Puerto Rico did not.


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