Puerto Rico Will Experiment with Shock Doctrine Education Reform

Even though our education-disrupter-in-chief, Arne Duncan, has moved to the private sector to work for Laurene Powell Jobs’ Emerson Collective, L.L.C., we should not expect his kind of thinking in education to disappear. Duncan—purveyor of disruption through charter schools—believer in social entrepreneurship as a replacement for old fashioned school systems—father of rewarding the kids who can race to the top in a climate of competition—represented a wave of business school theorizing about public education that is absent from Betsy DeVos’s plain old libertarian philosophy. Still, it turns out, DeVos is quite supportive of a new plan to introduce marketplace school choice in Puerto Rico.

Catherine Cheney reports on a Global Skills & Education Forum last week, a forum whose agenda reflects today’s push to turn over whole education systems to philanthropic-driven experiments in privatization. In Cheney’s report, you’ll see that venture philanthropists are exploring how to bring “quality education for all” across the world and doing it for profit—or sometimes not-for-profit—based on theories hatched in think tanks underwritten with billionaire philanthropic dollars donated to foundations or L.L.C.s like the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative or Powell Jobs’ Emerson Collective.

It is sometimes hard to parse out how all this will work when one reads about it through the glowing haze of business school rhetoric.  Here is Cheney’s description: “‘There is definitely an interest in for-profit companies that serve the very poor right now, but it’s mostly concessional ventures, groups that are quasi-philanthropic,’ said John Rogers, a partner and education sector lead at the Rise Fund, a global impact fund led by the private equity firm TPG. The fund is looking for opportunities to help the mass market in a way that is not concessionary, Rogers said.  The Rise Fund’s first investment in Latin America was in Digital House, a group of schools based in Argentina providing digital skills across Latin America. Rogers said he hopes more groups that are making grants and program-related investments will consider for-profit companies because they may find that the focus on profit also delivers greater scale.”

Cheney describes lots of controversy and discussion at the recent global education forum about Bridge International Academies (BIA), the for-profit, tech-heavy schools exported to Kenya, Uganda, Liberia, and India, where governments have been contracting with—and sometimes disgustedly cancelling the contracts with—BIA schools. Bridge International Academies was built with a huge personal investment by Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and others. There have been problems of high tuition for parents along with mixed results for children and for the governments that worry about undermining stressed out public systems by contracting with an international, tech-heavy scheme. Cheney describes controversy swirling around BIA schools: “New models that push for change are often met with resistance, and that has certainly proven true in efforts to transform education.  Bridge International Academies is one high-profile example of the backlash against Silicon Valley’s involvement in education. The tech heavy chain of private schools has come under fire in multiple countries, leading to a legal battle over some of its schools.  Some Bridge investors have dismissed many of the concerns, saying the backlash comes from people who do not want to see the status quo disrupted….”  One analyst explained: “Bridge International Academies serves as a cautionary tale about the problems of perception when a model appears to be replacing people rather than supporting people.”  Of course, the problem may be reality rather than mere perception: people may well be concerned when electronic devices are used to increase class size and reduce the number of live teachers.

All this international policy talk serves as a backdrop for what is being discussed and planned in Puerto Rico, the U.S. territory ravaged by Hurricane Maria last September. The reality is that when disaster strikes these days, there are plenty of philanthropically funded think tanks and consultants poised to sell your government on the ideology of privatizing your public schools.  Remember that after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, one of the primary funders of the privatization of New Orleans’ schools was the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

On March 22, POLITICO reported: “A law that would overhaul Puerto Rico’s education system—and usher in charter schools and taxpayer-financed vouchers for alternatives to public schools—is on its way to the desk of Gov. Ricardo Rossello.  The plan was pitched as the island’s education system grappled with a tough recovery and mass migration to the states following Hurricane Maria.  The proposal finalized by both legislative chambers this week would reduce the number of students who can receive school vouchers to… 3 percent—down from the 5 percent Puerto Rico’s House of Representatives had approved last week… The Legislation would allow for the creation of charter schools, or for the conversion of existing public schools into charters. An amendment from the island’s Senate, however, prohibits specialized schools, like Montessori schools, from converting to charters.”

The source of this plan, according to The Nation, is Julia Keleher, Puerto Rico’s Secretary of Education, but previously a consultant from Philadelphia hired by Puerto Rico to “reform” the island’s education: “(I)n the four years leading up to her appointment, Keleher’s consultancy firm, Keleher & Associates, had been awarded almost $1 million in contracts to ‘design and implement education reform initiatives’ in Puerto Rico… With the assistance of DeVos’s office, Keleher’s department has now produced an education-reform bill designed to increase ‘school choice through measures such as the creation of charter schools and school-voucher programs.'”

How have Betsy DeVos and the U.S. Department of Education been involved?  Apparently Keleher has worked through the winter with Jason Botel, DeVos’s assistant secretary.  For The Intercept, Rachel Cohen reports: “DeVos and her federal education department have certainly been involved. DeVos’s Deputy Assistant Secretary Jason Botel has been in ‘close communication’ with Puerto Rio’s Education Secretary Julia Keleher for months since the storm, and in a blog post published in January, Botel wrote, ‘We look forward to supporting students, educators and community members as they not only rebuild what’s been lost, but also improve, rethink and renew.'”  Cohen adds: “At a time when the island is starved of investment and inching slowly through a storm recovery, many Puerto Rican’s worry that the government is treating this more as an opportunity to disrupt education, rather than stabilize it—while also potentially opening the doors for supercharged corruption.”

Only weeks after the governor’s signing of the new education plan, Puerto Rico’s Department of Education has now announced the closing of 283 public schools. Valerie Strauss puts this number in perspective: a third of the public schools on the island. The stated purpose of the school closures is to save money by consolidating schools after many students have left Puerto Rico for the mainland.

Nobody in a position of power seems to have questioned the logic of expanding school choice and privatization at a time when public school enrollment has already been falling as families abandon the island. Researchers like Bruce Baker and scholars at Chicago’s Roosevelt University have, however, pointed out repeatedly that by expanding the number of charter schools in the same geographic space while public school enrollment has already been dropping, cities like Chicago have further undermined their public school districts by creating an ongoing cycle of closure of neighborhood public schools.

Many worry that Puerto Rico’s experiment with privatization is another example of what—in relation to the seizure and privatization of New Orleans’ schools after Hurricane Katrina, Naomi Klein called “the Shock Doctrine.” Certainly those at the Global Skills and Education Conference are contemplating disruptive education reform—developed with money from technology-driven venture philanthropies to be introduced top-down in the developing world where public schools are suffering.  Klein’s description of the use of Hurricane Katrina, the 2005 natural disaster, as the excuse to disrupt and privatize the public schools of New Orleans remains pertinent to  Julia Keleher and Jason Botel’s plan for the disruption of education in hurricane-devastated Puerto Rico today.

Here is Naomi Klein: “In sharp contrast to the glacial pace with which the levees were repaired and the electricity grid was brought back online, the auctioning off of New Orleans’ school system took place with military speed and precision.  Within nineteen months, with most of the city’s poor residents still in exile, New Orleans’ public school system had been almost completely replaced by privately run charter schools.  Before Hurricane Katrina, the school board had run 123 public schools; now it ran just 4.  Before the storm, there had been 7 charter schools in the city; now there were 31.  New Orleans teachers used to be represented by a strong union; now the union’s contract had been shredded, and its forty-seven hundred members had all been fired.  Some of the younger teachers were rehired by the charters, at reduced salaries; most were not.  New Orleans was now, according to The New York Times, ‘the nation’s preeminent laboratory for the widespread use of charter schools’…. I call these orchestrated raids on the public sphere in the wake of catastrophic events, combined with the treatment of disasters as exciting market opportunities, ‘disaster capitalism.'” (The Shock Doctrine, pp. 5-6)