A $7 billion opportunity to strengthen education in Puerto Rico

Column by the former Education Reform Director: Karen Maldonado

This column was originally published by El Nuevo Día on June 24, 2022

 The Puerto Rico Department of Education (PRDE) has a truly unique opportunity: to use unprecedented amounts of funding to build a better, more equitable future for public education here on our island. As PRDE plans its budget for the upcoming fiscal year 2023 that begins on July 1, 2022, it should use equitable funding as a lever to build a better future for public education in Puerto Rico. 

PRDE is the largest government department, with a $2 billion recurring budget. In recent years it has received over triple that amount in one-time from the Federal government: roughly $7 billion from federal stimulus funding and recovery funds, and other grants. These funds are a remarkable opportunity to invest in students, staff, and schools to improve educational outcomes now and in the future. 

Equitable funding aligns financial resources to the diverse needs of students. PRDE’s community is diverse, and the department should take into consideration the varied needs of its stakeholders: students, staff, families, and the community. For example, PRDE could further its equitable investments in its Special Education population, a student group that makes up roughly a third of its enrollment and has been particularly impacted by the pandemic. Additionally, it can continue to develop its family engagement strategy to elevate voices and support community needs. 

A successful spending plan that considers equity and tradeoffs requires both strategy and coordination. PRDE can promote a conversation around equitable funding at many levels to prioritize spending these once-in-a-generation dollars in a way that can have a lasting impact on students. 

PRDE and the Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico are working hand in hand to move this conversation forward. As part of our new and groundbreaking Leadership Development Program (LDP) to support PRDE’s reforms and advance the skills of the mid-career leaders, the Oversight Board’s Director of Commonwealth Fiscal Plan and Budget, Ginorly Maldonado, and a group of emerging leaders from PRDE’s central and regional offices engaged in a rich discussion about equitable funding with case studies and application examples for PRDE. For most LPD participants, this was the first time they had heard about equitable funding. Their questions built a dialogue about the current state of equitable funding at PRDE and what potential steps to take so future investments are meaningful and equitable. 

We are all committed to looking for ways to integrate equitable funding principles into PRDE’s work, to assess how equitably the regional finance office distributes its existing budget, and to help PRDE make high-impact, large purchases with stimulus funds. The LDP program participants would act as active thought partners to the department and consider equitable investments with one-time funds through their action learning projects. The impact of the equitable funding session shouldn’t stop here; participants can also apply this lesson in their day-to-day responsibilities by taking an equity lens to tasks like budget allocation or stakeholder outreach. 

Some of this equitable investing work has already begun. As students return to in-person instruction, PRDE, like many other districts, saw an increase in chronic student absenteeism. Last fall, PRDE launched an initiative to increase the number of social workers available to provide school-based support to families, and collaboratively problem-solve barriers to student attendance. By giving direct support to families most impacted by the pandemic and its disruptions, PRDE is taking an equitable approach to student needs and fund utilization. 

As PRDE continues to plan for and deploy its $7 billion in one-time funding, it can continue also to collaborate with the Oversight Board and stakeholders from across the island including teachers, students, parents, and community members to incorporate diverse perspectives into funding decisions. Nearly $250 million of funds are set to expire in September 2022 and another $1.2 billion is set to expire in September 2023. Taking an equity lens to finance takes time, but the time to act is now. PRDE has a responsibility to its students and its community to deploy these funds promptly and strategically to avoid missing this extraordinary opportunity. 

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