NEW YORK—AFT President Randi Weingarten delivered the following testimony to the Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico Listening Session Monday (remarks as prepared):
“I am here today with the president of the Asociación de Maestros de Puerto Rico, Aida Diaz, and executive board member Angel Perez. Together we represent the 1.7 million members of the American Federation of Teachers and 40,000 teachers on Puerto Rico. Thank you to the board for the opportunity to testify.
“The challenge of rebuilding a vibrant society in the aftermath of disaster is always daunting. And Puerto Rico is facing two challenges—both natural and fiscal. This control board and leaders in Puerto Rico are facing the most critical decisions leaders can ever face, ones where the future of the island hangs in the balance.
“But the truth is, very few experts have the skills and experience to put a society back together. Too often, lacking hands-on knowledge, leaders turn to impersonal economic metrics. Regrettably, this results in bad decisions and failed plans.
“We implore the board to be on guard against the rush to simple solutions, to not rely on untested metrics and to not view the island’s future as a one-dimensional cost-cutting exercise.
“Austerity economics and privatization have been tried and have failed on Puerto Rico. The Center for Economic and Policy Research has found that the policies adopted before Hurricane Maria led to more outmigration and a rapidly shrinking economy. Teachers and workers have already sacrificed millions in lost wages and retirement. They haven’t had a salary increase for 10 years.
“And think about the ramifications, not just to educators and education but to small business, when workers leave or when they have their pay and pensions reduced. They fail because people don’t have the money to buy goods and services.
“Great American cities like Detroit, New York and Newark are reborn when the working class is invested in, not abandoned.
“Rebuilding and revitalization cannot succeed if it is built on the quicksand of economic austerity. We cannot cut our way to a revitalized island. And we cannot rebuild and recover without investing in our schools and our dedicated corps of incredible educators.
“I’ve been on the island twice since Maria and am planning one more trip in December. I have seen firsthand the devastation and the total lack of urgency and resources from the Trump administration. While we cannot substitute for the federal government, our union has showed up and tried to help.
“We created Operation Agua—with great partners like Operation Blessing—to deliver thousands of water purifiers so children and families have safe, reliable drinking water. We used schools as distribution points for care and relief. We’ve delivered 2,000 filters to 400 schools, and we plan to deliver filters to all 1,000 schools, serving 345,000 children. But we need to do much, much more.
“Inside schools, we must align skills and knowledge with the key industries Puerto Rico relies on—and will rely on in the future—such as manufacturing, electronics and tourism. If we can align career education with industry in Peoria, or in New York City, we can do it in San Juan and Ponce.
“But schools are not just places of learning—they’re also centers of community, of opportunity and of social solidarity. They are the pillars of any effort to rebuild and attract families back to the island.
“I saw the community model in action at Escuela Nuestra Senora de Covadonga school in Trujillo Alto. A teacher, Carlos Rodriguez, was cooking meals and holding makeshift classes barely two weeks after the hurricane. And that was at a school that almost closed—but we fought to keep it open.
“Again, if we can create sustainable community schools in Cincinnati, we can do it in Mayagüez.
“Time is of the essence. According to the Puerto Rican Diaspora Study, a survey of those who have departed the island since Maria, more than half are unsure whether they’ll return. To maintain the economy and the community, we can’t stand by while the middle class leaves or—even worse—fire the middle class, as was done after Katrina. We need to support teachers, not threaten them.
“When New Orleans was hit by Hurricane Katrina, only half of displaced adult New Orleanians returned, and less than a third moved back in to the home they’d occupied beforehand. And, by 2015, American Community Survey data showed the black middle class had been effectively washed away.
“Every time someone says ‘Katrina,’ it says to people that teachers are going to be fired.
“The opposite signal needs to be sent to Puerto Ricans on the mainland—that we’re investing in the future, that we’re rebuilding schools and rebuilding the economy, not gutting the institutions and supports that are already there. We need a new Marshall Plan that invests in infrastructure, including public schools, and provides long-term debt relief—the kind of plan Sen. Sanders proposed this week and that the AFT and over 70 other organizations support.
“Right now, schools and the children they teach are at risk from fast-talking hucksters trying to make a buck—millions of bucks—and who want to attack public education by promoting self-serving privatization scams.
“Today, the teachers and the working people of Puerto Rico are raising their voice. There must be stable schools and communities for people to return to, and there must be a real effort not only to provide humanitarian aid but to invest in the island’s future.
“Let the thousands of Puerto Rican educators and their deep expertise be part of your decision-making process. Let my 1.7 million-member organization partner with this board on the journey of recovery. Don’t turn your backs or close your ears. And most importantly, let us work together to support one of the most essential elements of today’s and tomorrow’s Puerto Rico—its public schools.
“Working Americans are coming together to build a vibrant future for Puerto Rico. I hope you will heed our advice and join with us in our efforts. Thank you.”