Puerto Rico Education Secretary Touts System’s Successful Initiatives
With two years at the head of the Puerto Rico Education Department, Julia Keleher’s informed perspective recognizes the improvements to the public education system but states, “It’s not 100 percent of where it should be.”
Among the highlights for the Education secretary is establishing a new organizational structure that clearly delineates the responsibilities and accountability of the administrators, with the goal to assure this information is highly accessible not just to other employees of the Education Department, but also for parents and students.
Another positive change Keleher emphasized is the interests of private-sector entities, whether for-profit or nonprofit, to help improve school conditions and the availability of materials. The latest example of such an initiative is the Puerto Rico Open, a PGA TOUR event, which will raise $750,000 to donate for sports supplies to public schools across the island. Keleher argued those funds could help her present an increase in sports-related allocations when defending the department’s annual budget.
In contrast, funding challenges are ever-present issues for Keleher, who argued that locally there are important decisions about how to provide better-quality education. Although Puerto Rico received an additional injection of federal funds, the money was earmarked for recovery efforts with the expectation that going forward would be different.
“There are no more federal funds. We received funds [after] the hurricane because it was a disaster and [Congress] assigned $500 million [to the Education Department] for what is called ‘Restart.’ Through that we are buying [new] technology but there are no more funds. We receive what was assigned per head [per student]. It is a formula created through the number of students we have, and it is expected, with the number of students [dropping], that it will lead to a reduction in the amount of federal funding,” Keleher stated.
This reduction in federal funds leaves the local school system further behind when it involves the money invested per student.
“It is important to say that Education’s budget is not enough for basic services that would be of high quality. The $2.5 billion [dollars] that I have is not enough for the agency to operate [at its optimum] because we are assigning $6,500 per student. In Miami, they are assigning $15,000 per student, in New York [it is] $23,000 per student,” the Education secretary said.
“We are starting below the standard for minimum service, such as books and technology, but with what we have, of what is given in Miami, it is very difficult to use to build a high-quality system,” Keleher said. “So, the Puerto Rico is going to need to make some difficult decisions about where we are going to invest.”
To address its $300 million budget reduction, Keleher has reduced transportation services and administrative positions and moved other administrative positions to actual schools, as opposed to the Education Department’s headquarters. This move allows Keleher to pay 35 percent of the paychecks with federal funds, which would not be allowed if that personnel worked in Education Department buildings.
Keleher revealed an eagerness to bring more tools to teachers, and more customized training, as well as books and technology. However, Keleher also expressed that it is her desire to be able to use sports as a tool to offer kids more engaging experiences.
While in the future, the Education secretary would like to see a school league, the first step to bring in needed supplies will come from the Kids Pro Fun initiative backed by the Puerto Rico Open, which will be held at the Coco Beach Golf Resort in February.
Pedro Zorrilla explained that the Puerto Rico Open is collaborating with Boston-based nonprofit Good Sports, which is organizing a GoFundMe page for the event to raise $750,000, which would translate into sport supplies for students in both the regular and special education programs.
The initiative works through a matching fund. Zorrilla, who is part of a team helping to organize the event, explained that the Puerto Rico Open is working to raise $350,000, of which it has already raised $122,897 at this writing. Good Sports will provide a matching fund plus a $50,000 bonus.
Zorrilla stressed the importance of sports, not just for kids’ physical health but also for their minds and as a tool to help them focus and stay out of trouble.