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Renewing the American Dream: Education, the Great Equalizer

Eric Waldo, Deputy Chief of Staff at the U.S. Department of Education, and Frankie Martinez-Blanco, Director of Advance at the U.S. Department of Education, both uphold their commitment to giving back to Puerto Rico and promoting the power of education in honor of their Puerto Rican heritage.

Frankie was born on the island.  I was born stateside, in Alabama, spending my childhood and adolescence on constant flights to San Juan followed by the subsequent drive to visit family in Caguas.  We now occupy offices 500 feet apart at the U.S. Department of Education.  Like so many others in and out of government, we’ve been spending countless months, weeks, days and hours thinking about how to improve public education in the United States and Puerto Rico.  As the Department’s representative on the President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status, I’ve had the opportunity and honor of engaging with island stakeholders about how to overcome the education challenges specific to Puerto Rico. 

Following up on the Task Force’s Recommendation, we have been working with the White House and local stakeholders to hold a Puerto Rico Education Summit with Secretary Duncan, which will take place on Monday, October 17, 2011 in San Juan.  At the summit, we are convening education experts, stakeholders, practitioners, elected officials, as well as the business and non-profit community to discuss the importance of improving public education in Puerto Rico.  Secretary Duncan will also meet with teachers, parents, and students during his visit.  Nothing could be dearer to my heart or more important to Puerto Rico. 

I’ve experienced first-hand some of the real difficulties on the island.  My grandmother’s home in Caguas was once part of a thriving neighborhood not too far from the town center.  That same street is now littered with empty, decaying homes and frequented by sex workers.  My mother loves that house (she kept it after my abuela passed away)—she and her sisters grew up there, and so did my brothers and my cousins.  Sadly, it just doesn’t feel safe anymore.  For me, like so many challenges we face in society, it all comes back to education. 

Because we know the power of a great education.  We’ve known that education is the best anti-poverty program since Horace Mann best explained it in 1848: “Education then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is a great equalizer of the conditions of men—the balance wheel of the social machinery….it prevents being poor.”  And President Obama has been clear that “countries that out-educate us today will out-compete us tomorrow.”  That’s why it is our responsibility to ensure that every child in the U.S. and Puerto Rico receives a world class public education. 

President Obama is giving the Department the dollars and the flexibility to help Puerto Rico and the states achieve those goals.  With programs like the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Race to the Top, Investing in Innovation, and Promise Neighborhoods, the Department has spurred innovation, and sparked a national conversation about education reform.  Still, at the end of the day, the hard work rests at the state and local level.  Principals, teachers, parents, students and communities must be vested partners in every student’s success. 

Secretary Duncan says that “Education is the civil rights issue of our generation.”  He’s right.  Puerto Rico, like so many places, faces real challenges to improve its public education system.  And it is our job to ensure that no matter where you are born or where you live, you have the opportunity to get a great education.  The 450,000+ K-12 public school students in Puerto Rico are counting on it.

Eric Waldo is Deputy Chief of Staff at the U.S. Department of Education and Frankie Martinez-Blanco is Director of Advance at the U.S. Department of Education