Puerto Rico has regained access to hundreds of millions of dollars for education to address the fallout of COVID-19 and other needs, the U.S. Department of Education announced Monday.
The department said the funding totaled $912 million, which Puerto Rico had lacked access to due to previous restrictions on federal aid. This total includes $392 million in aid for the U.S. territory’s schools in the CARES Act, as well as $522 million in fiscal 2019 funds, including Title I funding for disadvantaged students and Individual with Disabilities Education Act grants.
Puerto Rico shut down its public school buildings at the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Earlier this month, the island’s education department allowed some schools to reopen for in-person learning. Find out more about Puerto Rico’s situation in the context of the pandemic and other challenges here.
“The Department understands the urgency to access vital Federal education funds to meet the needs of Puerto Rican students who are experiencing compounded trauma,” U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona wrote to Gov. Pedro Pierluisi of Puerto Rico in a Monday letter.
The move marks a reversal of a decision the Trump administration made last summer to restrict a large share of COVID-19 relief for the U.S. territory’s schools. Last July, the Education Department told Puerto Rico that it would be able to draw down just $7.3 million out of roughly $400 million in CARES Act relief. Frank Brogan, the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education at the time, told Puerto Rico’s governor and education secretary that this restriction was placed on the dollars due to the island’s “longstanding challenges” in administering federal K-12 aid.
In 2019, for example, a federal investigation found Puerto Rico’s education department failed to ensure proper oversight of how federal disaster funds were used following Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017. Julia Keleher, Puerto Rico’s former education secretary, was arrested on two separate occasions (once in 2019 and once last year) on fraud and other charges; she has pleaded not guilty to both sets of charges.
Brogan said last summer the restriction on CARES aid was put in place for a 60-day window, although that restriction ended up lasting until the Monday announcement. The amount of CARES Act money Cardona said has been released corresponds to the amount the department withheld last summer. The restrictions on the fiscal 2019 aid were in place prior to the CARES Act.
The CARES money being released to Puerto Rico includes money for elementary and secondary schools, as well as money earmarked for governors to use on both K-12 and higher education. Puerto Rico is due to receive nearly $3 billion from the main K-12 relief fund in the American Rescue Plan, the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 aid deal Biden signed into law earlier this month.
Cardona is the second person of Puerto Rican heritage to lead the education department, following former education Secretary John B. King Jr. Cardona’s parents moved from Puerto Rico to the U.S. mainland before he was born.
The pandemic has exacerbated challenges for U.S. jurisdictions already struggling with the impact of natural disasters, a federal watchdog reported last year. At the time of Hurricane Maria, public school enrollment in Puerto Rico was roughly 350,000 although that number had dropped to 307,000 for the 2019-20 school year, according to federal data.