By: Chris Soto, Senior Advisor, Office of the Secretary
The Puerto Rico education system is at a pivotal moment with many influences converging to help accelerate positive change for the Puerto Rico Department of Education, and ultimately the students it serves. The combination of the influx of federal relief dollars, a strengthened relationship with the U.S. Department of Education, and an island-wide recognition of the urgency for structural changes that address root causes and prioritize student outcomes, provides an opportunity to take a proactive approach towards addressing long-standing challenges.
It was just over a year ago when U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona reaffirmed the U.S. Department of Education’s commitment to support the students of Puerto Rico. Since then, the work has progressed including consistent engagement with stakeholders across the island ensuring everyone’s voice is included as Puerto Rico invests nearly five billion dollars of federal education relief funds to respond to the needs of students and educators. Thanks to the help of these federal funds, schools reopened with a nurse in most buildings, hundreds of school psychologists were hired, an island-wide after-school program was launched and most significantly, teachers will see a significant pay increase starting in the next school year.
The Department of Education also constituted the Puerto Rico Education Sustainability (PRES) Team, which initially focused on three key areas: financial responsibility, safe and healthy school buildings, and federal program support. Our colleagues at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) have been working closely with the Puerto Rico Department of Education (PRDE) as they craft a master infrastructure plan for the repair and rebuilding of schools. Alvarez & Marsal, the PRDE’s Third-Party Fiduciary Agent, has been embedded at the PRDE and will soon release a corrective action plan for fiscal improvements. And today, the Department is releasing a comprehensive technical assistance plan that responds directly to the needs of PRDE staff in the management of federal programs and funds.
Additionally, we’ve engaged directly with Puerto Rico’s legislature, hosting an informational session about the historic amount of federal education funds made available to the island and the Department reinforced the Secretary’s message of transparency as investments are made. We’ve also worked with the PRDE, sharing best practice examples of state dashboards that track the spending of relief dollars such as those in New Mexico and Louisiana.
Following two natural disasters and a global pandemic, it is critical that trust is rebuilt with students and families across the island. The public should be aware of how federal funds are contributing to the educational recovery of their schools and actually see the benefits in classrooms across the island.
While progress has been made, we know there is more work to do.
During this year, it has become evident that in order to achieve transformational change, we must collectively address the longstanding systemic issues that continue to hinder the effective operation of Puerto Rico’s education system. That’s why the Department of Education, in collaboration with the PRDE and through feedback received from stakeholders, will develop a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) identifying specific areas for improvement that are critical to the system’s success. Formal listening sessions will be held throughout the island in order to ensure maximum participation from students, parents, teachers, and stakeholders. This MOU will represent the next phase of our collective work.
As communicated in Puerto Rico’s ARP ESSER Plan approval letter, ongoing engagement with all stakeholders is vital to ensure that implementation of Puerto Rico’s recovery plan and the use of federal dollars is transparent, effective, equitable, inclusive, and best meets the needs of Puerto Rico’s students.
Today is another step towards progress in order to meet the moment for the students of Puerto Rico.