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Miguel Cardona: Puerto Rico’s Teachers Are Doing Their Best to Reopen Classrooms

By Andrew Ujifusa — June 29, 2021 3 min read
Education Secretary Miguel Cardona speaks during a press briefing at the White House on March 17, 2021.

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said in an Education Week interview during his trip to Puerto Rico this week that while the U.S. territory’s officials acknowledge that they “have an obligation to earn the trust of the people of Puerto Rico,” he’s looking forward to strengthening the relationship between his agency and the island’s school system.

Doing so, he said, will clear the way for more support to help students recover from the pandemic and to help schools improve.

In addition to meetings with Puerto Rican officials, Cardona also made a point of visiting with students attending a summer-learning program. It was the first time, Cardona said, that those students had returned to their school since March 2020, when the pandemic shut down in-person classes in the island-wide system and added to the challenges that students and educators there have faced over the last several years.

“The students I saw today were happy to be in school,” Cardona said in a Tuesday interview. He added that teachers and other educators were working hard to ensure in-person learning opportunities this summer and into the next school year: “They want to be there with their students.”

He also stressed the importance of providing school counselors and other support staff to students to help them as they transition back to classrooms.

Cardona’s visit, scheduled to last from June 27 to June 29, underscored his links to the island. His parents moved from the U.S. territory to the mainland, where he was born, and Cardona has been a prominent participant in Puerto Rican cultural events in his Connecticut hometown.

COVID-19 and lingering damage from Hurricane Maria in 2017 have exacerbated or exposed significant issues for the island’s schools, from a long-term enrollment decline to the arrest of former education secretary Julia Keleher, who recently pleaded guilty to charges involving fraud.

Keleher, who left office in 2019, closed hundreds of public schools in 2018, citing fiscal and the drop in the number of students, a move that added to controversy surrounding her leadership. Enrollment stood at roughly 350,000 when Maria struck the island; federal data from 2019-20 put the number of students at 292,500, a drop of about 16 percent.

Cardona marked the start of his Puerto Rico visit by announcing on Monday that his department was releasing nearly $4 billion in federal funding, including $2 billion in American Rescue Plan relief, for the island’s educational system. That came a few months after the U.S. Department of Education released nearly $1 billion in federal funding for the island. Cardona also visited with officials from the island’s teachers’ union, which is an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers.

“The students of Puerto Rico have suffered enough,” Cardona said in a Monday speech. “It’s time to get back to school safely and quickly. The resources and the partnership will help that happen.”

Last year, the Trump administration restricted Puerto Rico’s access to some of its pandemic relief for education, and said that significant and long-standing concerns remained about Puerto Rico’s handling of federal education grants. A 2019 audit by the Education Department’s office of inspector general that examined post-Maria disaster aid for schools found oversight deficiencies in five of six transactions it sampled; the inspector general said Puerto Rico’s government lacked the proven ability to safeguard against “waste, fraud, and abuse.”

Asked by Education Week for his response to concerns people have about the overall management of the island’s educational system, Cardona pointed out that the Puerto Rico Department of Education has an agreement with a third-party fiduciary agent to conduct fiscal oversight, which should help ease concerns. He said Gov. Pedro Pierluisi recognized the importance of that step with respect to getting access to federal aid, even if the territory’s officials weren’t thrilled with it.

More broadly, he also said officials acknowledged to him that they must work to overcome the “history of mistrust” of K-12 education leadership in Puerto Rico.

“All signals are pointing that we’re moving forward,” Cardona said. “There are systems in place that are going to address some of the concerns folks have had about the behavior of previous secretaries.”

At the same time, Cardona said Puerto Rico’s education leaders need the Education Department and the administration to help Puerto Rico develop capacity where needed, and to help do things like strengthen the relationship between the University of Puerto Rico and the island’s K-12 schools.

“They need a partnership with the U.S. Department of Education that respects what they need and what their students need,” Cardona said.

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