By: Chris Soto, Senior Advisor, Office of the Secretary
Puerto Rico’s education system stands 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 funds, a strengthened relationship with the U.S. Department of Education, and island-wide recognition of the urgency of structural changes that address the root causes and prioritize student outcomes, provides an opportunity to take a proactive approach to addressing long-standing challenges.
Just over a year ago, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona reaffirmed the U.S. Department of Education’s commitment to supporting students in Puerto Rico. Since then, work has progressed, including ongoing engagement with stakeholders across the island, ensuring everyone’s voice is included as Puerto Rico invests nearly $5 billion in federal aid assistance funds. education to meet the needs of students and educators. With 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 importantly Still, teachers will see a significant salary increase starting next school year.
The Department of Education also formed the Puerto Rico Education Sustainability (PRES) team, which initially focused on three key areas: fiscal responsibility, safe and healthy school buildings, and federal curriculum support. Our colleagues at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) worked closely with the Puerto Rico Department of Education (PRDE) to develop an infrastructure master plan for school repair and reconstruction. Alvarez & Marsal, the third-party fiduciary agent for PERD, has been brought into PERD and will soon release a corrective action plan for tax improvements. And today, the department is releasing a comprehensive technical assistance plan that directly addresses the needs of PERD staff in managing federal programs and funds.
Additionally, we spoke directly with the Puerto Rico Legislature, hosting an information session on the historic amount of federal education funds made available to the island and the Department reinforced the message of transparency. of the Secretary as investments are made. We also worked with PRDE, sharing best practice examples of state dashboards that track humanitarian assistance spending, such as those in New Mexico and Louisiana.
In the wake of two natural disasters and a global pandemic, it is essential that trust be restored with students and families across the island. The public should be aware of how federal funds are helping their schools’ educational recovery and actually see the benefits in classrooms across the island.
Although progress has been made, we know there is still work to be done.
During this year, it has become clear that to achieve transformational change, we must collectively address the long-standing systemic issues that continue to impede the effective functioning of Puerto Rico’s education system. That is why the Department of Education, in collaboration with PERD and through feedback received from stakeholders, will develop a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) identifying specific areas of improvement that are critical to the success of the system. Formal listening sessions will take place across the island to ensure maximum participation from students, parents, teachers and stakeholders. This Memorandum of Understanding will represent the next phase of our collective work.
As noted in Puerto Rico’s ARP ESSER Plan Endorsement Letter, continued engagement with all stakeholders is essential to ensure that Puerto Rico’s stimulus plan implementation and use of federal dollars is transparent, efficient, equitable, inclusive and best meet the needs of Puerto Rico. students.
Today is another step toward progress to meet the moment for students in Puerto Rico.