While the Department of Education acknowledged to the Board that there is an administrative backlog, the oversight entity has made it clear that the fundamental problem is not the lack of funds but the problem with management priorities.
Fiscal responsibility should be aligned to the principle that funds in the agency with the largest budget in the government of Puerto Rico translate into education and services of excellence to students.
However, statistics on student achievement in the public system show the opposite. A statistical overview of the Puerto Rican educational and social reality released by the Institute of Statistics this week reveals a declining trend in grade-level achievement in science and math.
META test results for third-grade students during the 2018-2019 school year reach 77 percent but they gradually drop to hit 10 percent in eighth grade. In Science, the achievement levels drop from 67 percent in third grade to 39 percent in eighth grade. And although it rises in eleventh grade, the percentage remains below 50 percent.
It is necessary to work on the reasons for these results and identify and overcome the causes that affect high achievement potential in both subjects in those grades where the risk of school dropout is high.
Statistics included a survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control among high school students is even more worrisome –although not necessarily surprising-. The survey reveals that, by 2017, nearly half of the girls said they felt sad and without hope. 26 percent of boys felt the same.
It is urgent to promote an education system that inspires enthusiasm and hope among students. The task seems difficult for a system that has been unable to reopen schools damaged by Hurricane María two years ago; which has not been able to implement an attendance system in more than a decade, and with Request for Proposals processes that take months causing serious delays for students to access new books.
Puerto Rico’s Human Development Index establishes the relationship between the level of education level and poverty. The island´s poorest areas are the areas where most of the people have not completed fourth grade, while those areas with higher levels of education are also the ones with higher income levels.
These data, along with many other reports, are a sample of where resources are needed, precisely those resources that vanish amid bureaucracy layers in an agency that seems to drag its feet while student enrollment declines and schools close.
There are still $ 600 million in federal funds frozen after federal corruption charges against former Secretary Julia Keleher. Part of these funds is intended to meeting the special needs of one-third of the students. The federal government demands the appointment of a trustee to disburse those funds, Secretary Eligio Hernández said this process could take until the end of February.
According to the fiscal plan, the Department of Education has to cut its budget by $ 317 million this year. The adjustment should focus on reducing bureaucracy before further affecting direct service to students. The Board offered the agency technical support, but the Department has to do its part.
Puerto Rico cannot afford further delays when it comes to efficiently managing funds to boost the social and economic mobility of younger generations.
Having an agile and high-quality education system must be one of the main priorities in Puerto Rico’s recovery. The agency's budget must be translated into a first-class education system that strengthens the island´s social infrastructure which will be supported by the physical infrastructure being built.