Latin America

Puerto Rican Educators, Activists, and Unions: stop pushing school vouchers during pandemic

The following press release was issued by the Puerto Rican Broad Front in Defense of Public Education (FADEP) and published by the Federation of Teachers of Puerto Rico (FMPR). It speaks to the public education community’s ongoing fight to prevent the neoliberal Puerto Rican government from taking advantage of multiple recent disasters and the Covid-19 pandemic to push through its plans for privatization and charter schools with reckless disregard for health and safety. Translated and published here by No Borders News as part of our ongoing international coronavirus coverage.

April 20, 2020, San Juan. “As our country struggles to protect itself from the pandemic threatening our lives, entrepreneurs and salesmen are taking the opportunity to grab resources meant for our students’ education,” stated the Broad Front in Defense of Public Education (FADEP) in reaction to the announcement by the Department of Education (DoE) that it will attempt to impose an educational voucher program for the 2020-2021 school year.

According to Education Secretary Eligio Hernández, this school year, approximately 2,500 students may be included in the program and the state will contribute $2,275.72 per student. Thus, we are talking about giving more than $5 million to private entities.

“This program will serve to transfer economic resources to private schools and colleges to the detriment of public schools. It is money taken away from students in our public education system and put into the hands of for-profit companies. It is also a way to rescue crisis-ridden private educational institutions by using taxpayers’ money, ”said Liza M. Fournier, President of the National Union of Educators and Education Workers (UNETE).

FADEP maintains that “these funds should be used for purchasing the necessary cleaning and sanitation supplies, hiring nurses to provide health services to the school community, and hiring more teachers so that schools can be reorganized with no more than 20 students per classroom. These actions will ensure the required social distancing and safety precautions for our students and teachers in our classrooms.

“These funds by themselves are insufficient in terms of the injection of resources the public education system needs. However, it is money that is being taken from us, leaving us with fewer resources to function and, therefore, dismantling, piece by piece, our nation’s public education. It is reprehensible that in the midst of this pandemic and the pain experienced by our people, the DoE is opening the door toward privatization wider and wider, instead of proposing alternatives that enhance and strengthen public education,” said Migdalia Santiago, president of EDUCAMOS.

Article II, Section 5 of the Puerto Rican Constitution provides that “no public property or funds shall be used for the maintenance of schools or educational institutions other than those of the State.” However, explained Carmen Warren, spokesperson for the Steering Committee of Mothers and Students in Charge of Special Education Programs explained, “The DoE has failed to achieve its goals, because school communities have rejected their privatization efforts. Last year they intended to provide vouchers to 3,000 students, that is, 1 percent of total student enrollment in Puerto Rico, even though the law permits a maximum of 3 percent. But families requested just 400 vouchers, in a clear repudiation of education privatization and in defense of public schools.”

Mercedes Martínez, president of the Federation of Teachers of Puerto Rico (FMPR) pointed out that “while on the one hand they hand over the department’s budget to private companies, on the other they refuse to provide justice for teachers and other teaching and non-teaching staff. Since 2008, no increase has been provided for the teachers’ salary scale and the Secretary of Education Eligio Hernández refuses to recognize a recent Superior Court ruling that found teachers are due an increase of $125.00 per. Furthermore, the DoE is neither funding teacher education, nor paying for merit steps, when suddenly, millions of dollars appear for private education.”

Karen De León, vice president of the Puerto Rican Union of Workers (SPT) added that “since the approval of Law 7 (a 2009 act declaring a fiscal emergency), thousands of employees have been laid off, but now, more than ever, rehiring them makes sense, especially the janitors whose work will guarantee healthy and safe conditions to which the entire school community is entitled. It is time for money to be invested in the cleaning materials and safety equipment our school communities need, especially in the face of a pandemic that only highlights the need to guarantee safe and healthy conditions to stay alive.”

Carmen Warren, spokesperson for the Steering Committee of Mothers and Parents of Students of Special Education Programs, called on parents “to reject this attack on public education and to demand that the money that privatizers and their buddies are carrying off today be invested in improving schools and offering quality educational alternatives to all students, including the most vulnerable sectors, those most impacted and forgotten by the Department of Education, that is, the student population with functional diversity.”

This statement is signed by the Federation of Teachers of Puerto Rico (FMPR), EDUCAMOS, the National Union of Educators and Education Workers (UNETE), the Timon Committee of Mothers and Parents of Special Education Students, and the Puerto Rican Union of Workers (SPT).

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