Puerto Rico has been granted immediate access to $912 million in federal funds that had not been available to students in public and private schools on the island as a result of restrictions imposed by the Trump administration, Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona announced Monday.
“The Department is committed to partnering with and supporting Puerto Rico in the efficient and effective use of department funds to serve Puerto Rico’s students, including to safely reopen schools and maximize in-person instructional time," Cardona said in a statement.
The new funds come less than two weeks after Puerto Rico reopened dozens of public and private schools for the first time since the Covid-19 pandemic began.
The aid was awarded after Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Pierluisi sent a letter to Cardona on March 5 requesting immediate access to previously approved aid "in order to provide the necessary resources for the students of Puerto Rico," Pierluisi said in a statement.
"Our students have endured a lot, since the hurricanes from 2017 to earthquakes and the Covid-19 pandemic, and they deserve to go back to normal. These resources will provide the necessary funds to satisfy the needs of our students on the island," Pierluisi said in Spanish. "On behalf of our children, teachers, and the parents of Puerto Rico, I thank Secretary Miguel Cardona for his commitment to supporting Puerto Rico and President Biden for quickly granting Puerto Rico access to these federal funds."
These funds include $390 million approved under the CARES Act as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic as well as additional aid from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund and the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund.
They also include all fiscal year 2019 department program grant funds, totaling $522 million, including funds under Title I, Part A of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, as amended, and Part B of the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act.
The U.S. Department of Education will work alongside local officials to determine how the money can be used to address the academic, social, emotional and mental health needs of students in the U.S. territory, according to a spokeswoman for Republican Del. Jenniffer González, Puerto Rico's nonvoting member of Congress.
Earlier this month, 96 of Puerto Rico’s 858 public schools reopened with restrictions. For now, only kindergarteners, special education students and children in first, second, third and 12th grades are allowed to return to school. They attend in-person classes only twice a week and are dismissed before noon.
Pierluisi also allowed children in Head Start programs to return to class.
Next steps amid new leadership
The release of federal funds marks a step forward as the Puerto Rican government, under new leadership, tries to build a new relationship with President Joe Biden's administration — and is hopeful that funding delays that were common under former President Donald Trump's administration will dissipate.
In 2019, the Trump administration imposed restrictions limiting Puerto Rico's ability to access federal funds allocated to the island's education system, citing a history of mismanagement within the Puerto Rico Department of Education. The notice of the restrictions was issued weeks before the arrest of former Education Secretary Julia Keleher, who allegedly participated in a fraud scheme involving $15.5 million in federal funding between 2017 and 2019.
It's unclear whether Cardona will be able to lift some of those restrictions, some of which require the bankrupt island to hire a third-party agency to manage certain federal funds.
But Cardona told Puerto Rico's national newspaper, El Nuevo Día, that he has "a strong team that is working closely, reviewing the requirements."
"We are confident in our relationship with Puerto Rico, that we are confident that what our students need right now is support," said Cardona, one of Biden's Latino Cabinet members, who is of Puerto Rican heritage. "They can’t wait any longer. They can’t continue to talk about reopening schools without providing the support they need."