The U.S. Department of Education has withheld the vast majority of Puerto Rico’s emergency coronavirus aid for K-12 schools while the island’s government looks for a third-party agent to manage the money, citing concerns about how the U.S. territory has handled federal grants in the past. But the top House lawmaker for education policy has questioned the move.
In mid-June, Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education Frank Brogan told Puerto Rico Gov. Wanda Vázquez Garced and Secretary of Education Eligio Hernández Pérez that of the island’s nearly $400 million in money for education provided by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, the territory will only be able to draw down $7.3 million for a 60-day budget period after the official grant award. That schedule is based on the timeline provided by Puerto Rico’s government for hiring a third-party agent. The rest will remain out of the Puerto Rico Department of Education’s control during that time.
“The department cannot ignore the longstanding challenges that have been associated with Puerto Rico and PRDE’s fiscal management of federal funds and the impact this has on effective Federal education program implementation,” Brogan wrote to the governor and education secretary on June 16.
Puerto Rico enrolled 307,000 public school students in the 2019-20 school year, according to federal data, although educators there say that number can fluctuate significantly over the course of an academic year as students move between the island and the U.S. mainland. Officially listed as one school district as of the 2019-20 school year, Puerto Rico as such has had one of the ten largest enrollment levels in public schools of any U.S. system for years.
The long-term problems caused by the 2017 hurricanes and the earthquakes that started around the end of last year made the pandemic especially challenging for Puerto Rico’s students and teachers.
Brogan’s said the department informed Puerto Rico about a federal requirement for the island to find a third-party agent to manage the aid in a May 22 letter. The department and the island’s government then negotiated before reaching the agreement described in the June 16 letter.
In addition, Puerto Rico’s entire governor’s fund in the CARES Act that can assist both K-12 and higher education, totaling $47.8 million, will also have to be put under the control of a third party, according to the letter. Brogan said Puerto Rico’s government had told him it intends to use the entire governor’s fund for K-12 education. During this 60-day period, Puerto Rico will have to document how it plans to use CARES relief and prepare cost estimates.
Past investigations into how the island’s education department have found significant problems. Just last year, the U.S. Department of Education’s inspector general found a lack of oversight over disaster aid provided by the federal government to Puerto Rico following Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017. And the island’s former Secretary of Education Julia Keleher was arrested last year on charges of steering contracts to friends during her tenure; she was arrested a second time earlier this year, again for crimes allegedly committed during her time in office.
However, the chairman of the House education committee is criticizing the department’s limits on Puerto Rico’s CARES K-12 relief.
In a Wednesday letter to U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., along with Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., said that while the island had had “challenges” with federal grants in the past, a recent audit found relatively few problems and still fewer related to education spending. They also suggested that the department could have used different oversight requirements that would have released the money to Puerto Rico much more quickly.
“While ensuring recipients have sufficient internal controls to prevent waste, fraud, and abuse is paramount to the successful implementation of any program, delayed funding distribution has undermined the core purpose of this program,” Scott and Grijalva continued. “To address these competing ends the Department should work collaboratively with all recipients to ensure rapid disbursement.”
Scott and Grijalva (the chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, which handles oversight of Puerto Rico) noted that based on the timeline worked out by the department and the island’s government, Puerto Rico won’t have full access to its CARES education aid until Aug. 15, shortly after the academic year starts for public schools there.
Photo: Kindergartner Andres Vazquez works at a plastic table under a gazebo where his teacher gives a class at a municipal athletic park in Santa Isabel, Puerto Rico. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down school buildings throughout the island, some children in Puerto Rico like Andres had been left out of school for nearly a month after an earthquake forced school closures earlier this year. --AP Photo/Carlos Giusti