The Disappearing Schools of Puerto Rico

In Conflict of Interest, Education, FOREIGN RELATIONS On
- Updated

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.

Most of the damage is the result of the catastrophic 2017 hurricane season, when Hurricanes Irma and Maria blasted through, wrecking homes and destroying the islands’ archaic electrical grid. The Trump administration’s dismissive federal response to the storm — punctuated by the hiring of Whitefish Energy, a small and inexperienced Montana-based contractor with ties to the administration, to oversee reconstruction of the electrical grid — helped leave Puerto Rico in the dark for months. The lag compounded the economic damage and contributed to the deaths of anywhere from 2,650 to 3,290 people.

. . .

During the blazing summer of 2019, Puerto Rico was in tumult. Thousands of the islands’ residents marched shoulder to shoulder through 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.

Most of the damage is the result of the catastrophic 2017 hurricane season, when Hurricanes Irma and Maria blasted through, wrecking homes and destroying the islands’ archaic electrical grid. The Trump administration’s dismissive federal response to the storm — punctuated by the hiring of Whitefish Energy, a small and inexperienced Montana-based contractor with ties to the administration, to oversee reconstruction of the electrical grid — helped leave Puerto Rico in the dark for months. The lag compounded the economic damage and contributed to the deaths of anywhere from 2,650 to 3,290 people.

. . .

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.

. . .

The exodus of money and people, including children, placedmmediate pressure on Puerto Rico’s schools. 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. The hurricanes hit soon after. As homes flooded, food spoiled and the islands plunged into darkness, millions more faced a decision: stay or go.

A few weeks after the storm in 2017, I sat in a powerless, partially flooded living room two miles in from the coast in Toa Baja with a woman named Idania Torres. She had decided to leave the house where she was born, and the community she loved, to move to North Carolina. “I have two school-age children, and right now there is no set date for classes to begin,” she told me through tears. “My priority is that my children do not miss a year of school. My priority is to give my children a better quality of life. So right now, though I love my homeland, this quality of life that I want for my kids, I can’t give them that here.”

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