by: Joy James

Charter schools are on the horizon for us.  They are already in operation in many larger cities in New York State.  What happens there, comes here.  As of 2009, 37% of charter schools did a worse job of educating students than the public schools they were competing against (Stanford University study).  Charter schools are marketed as high quality, free-market, educational alternatives.  However, not only are more than one-third of them worse at educating our children, but they are also bleeding the public school budgets dry.  How does this make it more difficult for our public school districts to provide good quality education?  When charter schools are authorized, the local public school districts within which the charter schools are physically located must fund the charter schools before funding their own public school budgets, paying up to 90% of each student’s tuition at the charter schools.  Meanwhile, the public schools still have all the budgetary responsibilities they had before the charter schools were started.  We already have painful, firsthand experiences of our public school budgets being cut to the bone, while costs for critical expenses increase across the board, just as with our family budgets. 


It simply does not make sense to funnel bare-bones budget money from public schools to charter schools.  How much more can already-strapped schools cut their budgets for education?  While being forced to pay for students to attend charter schools which are not guaranteed to provide better educational alternatives, public schools will have less and less money to invest in their own educational programs.  This vicious cycle of the privatization of education will continue.  As the quality of public education diminishes because public schools cannot afford to invest in their own educational programs, more and more students will take advantage of charter school education because their parents, barraged with marketing strategies, will assume charter schools are higher quality.  Higher enrollments in charter schools will further siphon money from the public school budgets.  This has one sure outcome – the closing of public schools at faster and faster rates.  When the public schools close and there is no more money forthcoming from them to pay for charter school tuition, education will become a commodity to be bought and sold.  We will be forced into an educational system with the wealthy buying good educations for their children, and those who do not have extra money getting substandard, if any, education.  Free-market does not mean free choice for all.


It may seem strange that we can look to a territory of the United States to show us how to take back control of our children’s educations and keep our communities intact.  The parents, students and teachers in Puerto Rico, however, are just such a collective example of fortitude in the struggle against the privatization of education.  Rafael Feliciano Hernandez, president of the Teachers’ Federation of Puerto Rico (Federacion de Maestros de Puerto Rico, or FMPR), has recounted the struggle against charter schools in Puerto Rico, beginning with a one day strike in 1993.  That strike, though short, finally gave voice to the teachers, who refused to accept the government forcing school privatization.  Feliciano believes that when the government was temporarily defeated in this effort, it looked to the United States to strengthen its anti-union fight.  Meanwhile, the teachers integrated with their communities to build school and extracurricular activities that benefited their unique populations, and developed strong bonds of trust and cooperation within their communities.  When the government of Puerto Rico again attempted to put forward the privatization of public schools in 2008, a ten day strike was the result, with teachers AND communities fighting back together, creating a connection that does not allow room for the government to pit communities against teachers.

In subsequent action, the Puerto Rican Secretary of Education fired all union leaders from their teaching positions.  Of the 13,000 teachers in this system, 99% walked out in protest against this act of governmental aggression.  The vast majority of these teachers had never participated in a strike or work stoppage before.  The Puerto Rican government’s next move was to cut the union dues check-off, thus shutting down union funding.  Union leaders (who are all working teachers) and union staff therefore did not receive any salary for several months.  Now union dues are collected by voluntary contribution only, and several thousand teachers have opted to become or remain members.  They are supported in their unionizing efforts by their communities and the students they teach.


We may not think it is realistic to follow the example of the Puerto Rican teachers union.  However, the guiding principles of the Teachers’ Federation of Puerto Rico can be used in our school districts to build solidarity between communities and teachers, and to fight charter schools.  We must make sure the dues of the rank and file teachers’ union members do not simply support the salaries of upper level union officials.  (In Puerto Rico, union officials make the same salary as when they were teachers.  No one can become a union official unless they have been an active, working teacher.)  The teachers union must be a structure of support for local communities and teachers, with the needs of the working class of primary concern.  The teachers union must support the teachers, students and families in their local struggles.  Real movements are developed from the bottom, or they will be worse than their predecessors.  As Feliciano Hernandez said, “Leadership from the top kills the capacity to struggle.”

We must also realize that parents and teachers are all part of the same mechanism for educating our children.  We cannot let the government pit teachers and their union locals against the families in their communities.  Developing bonds between teachers and communities is not easy, but must be accomplished in order to build a foundation for excellence in education.  This can also eliminate the supposed need for charter schools, as the needs of the population will be addressed by the unique programs in their schools.  “If we do not SEE the people, we are doing nothing.”  (Rafael Feliciano Hernandez)


Independent Press, June 16, 2011

Left Forum, March 2011

New York Times, February 20, 2012




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