COVID-19 has affected us all in unimaginable ways, particularly our children and their education. Remote learning was a challenge most schools weren’t ready or equipped to face.
This week, as hundreds of public schools are reopening, many challenges remain. But Puerto Rico also has a real opportunity to truly reform and improve the public education system for future generations. We must act quickly to take advantage of this opportunity.
During the past several months, the Puerto Rico Department of Education (PRDE) ensured that 756 of Puerto Rico’s 858 public schools could reopen on Wednesday. PRDE provided more than 261,000 students with essential school materials and organized workshops for school principals during the PRDE’s annual conference earlier this month. The University of Puerto Rico trained more than 20,000 teachers in social-emotional learning, various instructional strategies, response-to-intervention techniques to identify students with educational and behavioral needs, and other areas.
PRDE also provided details of a five-year strategic plan outlining its priorities – now and in the future. Those priorities include decentralizing PRDE, forging a deeper engagement with parents, improving teacher hiring practices, and improving fiscal responsibility, all to raise the bar on academic expectations that begins with senior leadership and ripples to each classroom in Puerto Rico.
Those are important steps to improve Puerto Rico’s education system. But we must not stop here. The Certified Fiscal Plan for the Commonwealth provides not only the funding but also the road map to take PRDE much further. In addition, the fiscal year 2021 certified budget for the Commonwealth includes important incentives for PRDE to prioritize the changes necessary to better serve our students. For example, it includes $1,500 one-time bonuses for school directors whose schools perform well on scorecards using data points such as student grades and attendance rates, and an innovation competition awarding $100,000 to 10 schools per each of the seven regions.
In the current fiscal year 2022, PRDE will have access to over $9 billion: $3.3 billion from the certified Commonwealth budget, and significant funding from COVID-19 related relief packages and FEMA disaster related funds. For this large sum, the Oversight Board is working together with PRDE to develop a long-term financial plan that ensures the funds are spend in a way that benefits all children in every classroom across the public school system.
The opportunity to rebuild and restore Puerto Rico’s education system has never been greater. And the challenges are significant. In average scores of 15-year-old students, Puerto Rico ranked 67th of 73 education systems on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) mathematics literacy scale in 2015. According to the PRDE’s own tests in 2019, just 45% of students are proficient in Spanish, 39% in English, and 30% in math. The pandemic can only further exacerbate this worrisome trend.
That is why we must not waste this influx of available federal funding. We now have the chance to carry out meaningful, long-term structural reforms, and the sooner we do it, the better.
The Commonwealth Certified Fiscal Plan provides a detailed road map for the reforms necessary to provide students the high-quality education they deserve. PRDE must establish a strategic and operational foundation at the central office, with a Chief Operating Officer overseeing the day-to-day implementation of reforms. Further, PRDE is in the process of hiring a Chief Financial Officer who takes responsibility for how PRDE manages its considerable funds responsibly and effectively, so the money is used to maximize the value for children and teachers.
PRDE also needs to implement system-wide curriculum reform, standardized around evidence-based best practices but also flexible enough to meet the diverse learning needs of students, including Special Education.
We must all take advantage of the opportunity we have right now to bring Puerto Rico’s education system into the 21st century and work towards lasting change that will help our children succeed. Education reform is about effective learning and spending money wisely. Great education is about our children’s future, it is the cornerstone for a growing economy that provides good jobs and prosperity. Together we can make it happen. Our children deserve it.
Dr. Betty Rosa is a member of the Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico. Dr. Rosa is the New York State Commissioner of Education and President of the University of the State of New York.