Federal

New Federal Team to Work on Puerto Rico School Improvement, Oversight

By Andrew Ujifusa — September 15, 2021 3 min read
Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona visits the Emilio Delgado School in Corozal on June 30, 2021 during a visit to Puerto Rico.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.


Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
Ensuring Continuity of Learning: How to Prepare for the Next Disruption
Across the country, K-12 schools and districts are, again, considering how to ensure effective continuity of learning in the face of emerging COVID variants, politicized debates, and more. Learn from Alexandria City Public Schools superintendent
Content provided by Class
Teaching Profession Live Online Discussion What Have We Learned From Teachers During the Pandemic?
University of California, Santa Cruz, researcher Lora Bartlett and her colleagues spent months studying how the pandemic affected classroom teachers. We will discuss the takeaways from her research not only for teachers, but also for

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Federal Feds to Probe Whether Texas Ban on School Mask Mandates Violates Disability Rights Laws
The Education Department has already opened investigations in six other states that ban universal school mask requirements.
2 min read
A staff member holds the door open for kids on the first day of school at Goodwin Frazier Elementary School in New Braunfels, Texas on Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2020.
A staff member holds the door open at Goodwin Frazier Elementary School in New Braunfels, Texas in 2020. This year, Texas has prohibited school districts from requiring all students to wear masks.
Mikala Compton/Herald-Zeitung via AP
Federal Pandemic Tests Limits of Cardona's Collaborative Approach as Education Secretary
He's sought the image of a veteran educator among former peers, but COVID has forced him to take a tough stance toward some state leaders.
10 min read
Education Secretary Miguel Cardona and Schools Chancellor Meisha Porter speak to Mia Arias, 10, during their visit to P.S. 5 Port Morris, a Bronx elementary school, Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021 in New York.
U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona and Schools Chancellor Meisha Porter speak to Mia Arias, 10, during a visit to P.S. 5 Port Morris, a Bronx elementary school, last month.
Brittainy Newman/AP
Federal White House Launches Hispanic Education Initiative Led by Miguel Cardona
President Joe Biden said his administration intends to address the "systemic causes" of educational disparities faced by Hispanic students.
2 min read
Education Secretary Miguel Cardona writes down and draws positive affirmations on poster board with students during his visit to P.S. 5 Port Morris, a Bronx elementary school, Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021 in New York.
U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona visits students in New York City at P.S. 5 Port Morris, a Bronx elementary school in the Bronx last month.
Brittainy Newman/AP
Federal Feds Add Florida to List of States Under Investigation Over Restrictions on Mask Mandates
The Education Department told the state Sept. 10 it will probe whether its mask rule is violating the rights of students with disabilities.
3 min read
Surrounded by lawmakers, Florida Gov.Ron DeSantis speaks at the end of a legislative session on April 30, 2021, in Tallahassee, Fla.
Surrounded by lawmakers, Florida Gov.Ron DeSantis speaks at the end of a legislative session on April 30, 2021, in Tallahassee, Fla.
Wilfredo Lee/AP