As Puerto Rico prepares to open its island-wide school system Aug. 17, education officials there say they’ll use $215 million in newly released American Rescue Plan funds for teacher salary increases and to help schools pay for mental health services, academic recovery, professional development, and community and family partnerships.
U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona announced the federal funds would be released to Puerto Rican schools ahead of the 2022-23 year during a visit with Puerto Rico Secretary of Education Eliezer Ramos Parés on July 29.
The money will allow the Puerto Rico Education Department, which operates the island’s single unified school district, to cover the cost of teacher salary raises, which began in July. The pay bump amounts to $1,000 a month or a 30 percent increase for the average teacher in Puerto Rico, according to a news release. The Puerto Rico Education Department announced the raise in February after thousands of Puerto Rican teachers walked out to protest for higher wages, better pensions, and improved working conditions, according to the Associated Press.
The money will also help the U.S. territory continue its recovery from Hurricane Maria in 2017 and a spate of earthquakes in 2020 that have devastated Puerto Rico’s infrastructure. Responding to the damage caused by Maria, the Puerto Rico Education Department made the controversial decision to permanently close 263 schools before the start of the 2018-19 school year. The Puerto Rico Education Department has been able to use funding from the American Rescue Plan and Federal Emergency Management Agency grants to cover the costs of repairs at 275 schools, according to the news release.
The territory’s education department saw a steep drop in enrollment following Hurricane Maria with total school enrollment dropping from about 365,200 in the 2017-18 school year to 259,500 in the 2021-22 school year. Department officials estimates enrollment of about 248,700 students in 2022-23, which would be a 4 percent drop from the previous school year and a 31 percent decrease from 2017.
Federal and Puerto Rico officials work to build a trusting relationship
While the federal funding will help Puerto Rico continue its recovery from natural disasters and the pandemic, it also signifies the U.S. Education Department’s commitment to building trust and better relationships with the territory, Cardona said in a statement.
“One year ago, I met with Secretary Ramos Parés for the first time to discuss the collaborative and transparent work that we envisioned to serve students in Puerto Rico,” he said. “Since that day we haven’t stopped working to ensure that every student across the island has their fair shot at success and for our teachers to be treated with the respect and dignity that they deserve.”
Cardona—who has Puerto Rican heritage—has made it clear that Puerto Rico is a priority for the department since he started in the Biden administration, declaring “it’s going to be a new day for Puerto Rico,” in a 2021 interview with Education Week. Under his leadership, the department established the Puerto Rico Education Sustainability Team to focus on improving oversight of federal funds for the territory’s education systems.
The federal department, meanwhile, will conduct formal listening sessions with students, parents, educators, and stakeholders across the island. The department plans to use the listening sessions to develop a memorandum of understanding that will “ensure that transparency remains at the forefront of the collaboration between the departments,” according to the release.
In total, the federal Education Department has released nearly $6 billion to support Puerto Rican schools in the last two years, including $2.9 billion in American Rescue Plan funds, $1.9 billion in other coronavirus relief funds, and $1 billion in program grants for Fiscal 2021 and 2022, according to the news release.
Ramos Parés in a statement acknowleged the assistance as “we continue to face the infrastructure challenges of our campuses, managing the distribution of the federal funds and guaranteeing their proper use.”