A new federal group will work to improve the education system for students in Puerto Rico, and to improve oversight of federal funding for the U.S. territory’s beleaguered K-12 and higher education systems.
The Puerto Rico Education Sustainability Team, unveiled by the U.S. Department of Education on Wednesday, has started working with the island’s education department on creating safer and healthier school buildings through infrastructure improvements.
In addition, the team aims to help Puerto Rico’s education officials on financial management issues, with the goal of having the territory’s education department regain control over its federal aid, and to work with the island on how it uses federal COVID-19 relief, following several crises in recent years including Hurricane Maria’s disruption and the pandemic.
The group’s creation marks a signature effort to improve Puerto Rico’s schools by U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, whose grandparents moved to the U.S. mainland from the island and who has expressed a strong interest in shoring up its schools. Cardona visited the island over the summer and praised the work of teachers to reopen classrooms.
During a call with reporters Wednesday with acting Puerto Rico Secretary of Education Eliezer Ramos, Cardona said the team will work with all education stakeholders on the island in a way that is “culturally and linguistically sensitive” to develop a plan for the island’s schools.
“It will be student centered and it will be transparent,” Cardona said.
In addition to measuring access to in-person learning amid the pandemic, the team will also focus on things like students’ access to higher education, Cardona said.
Chris Soto, a senior adviser to Cardona, is in charge of the team’s efforts, which also involve members of the Education Department’s office of elementary and secondary education and others; Cardona said the department is taking an “all hands on deck” approach to the issue.
Cardona also praised the island for its high coronavirus vaccination rates in the education system. Among students ages 12 to 15, for example, 86 percent are vaccinated, he noted. Cardona also reported that 96 percent of Puerto Rico’s teachers are vaccinated.
Cardona’s new team will face significant challenges in Puerto Rico
Shortly after taking office, Cardona declared that his tenure as education secretary would mark a “new day” for Puerto Rico. “We’re going to make sure that this agency is providing the support, connecting Puerto Rico with other states that have found success, to really lift those students up,” Cardona told Education Week in March.
Enrollment in Puerto Rico’s schools was on a sustained decline, and the academic performance of the island’s students caused grave concern, even before Hurricane Maria hit the island in 2017 and upended life for educators, students, and parents. The Education Department reported Wednesday that there are about 260,000 students enrolled in Puerto Rico’s public schools. That’s a dramatic decline from pre-Maria enrollment, which stood at roughly 350,000.
Over the last few years, Puerto Rican officials have enacted massive changes to the K-12 system, including instituting new school choice programs and closing down hundreds of traditional public schools.
The moves provoked significant controversy, which only grew when former Secretary of Education Julia Keleher—an outspoken proponent of those and other changes—was arrested on two separate occasions on fraud and other charges tied to her position after she stepped down from the job in 2019. Earlier this year, Keleher pleaded guilty to two federal fraud charges against her.
Federal auditors have also reported significant problems with how the island manages and keeps track of funding. Shortly after Keleher’s first arrest, for example, the Education Department’s office of inspector general found that Puerto Rico’s education department did not exercise proper oversight of disaster relief money.
The Trump administration restricted Puerto Rico’s access to COVID-19 relief in 2020. However, earlier this year, the Education Department released nearly $1 billion for Puerto Rico’s schools; Cardona explained that the territory’s agreement with a third-party fiduciary agent to conduct financial oversight helped make the move possible.