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Supporting Students in the Midst of Puerto Rico’s Fiscal Challenges

Education Secretary John B. King Jr. Meets with Elected Leaders, Visits Turnaround School as Part of Administration Effort to Support Puerto Rico’s Recovery

While in Puerto Rico, Secretary King met with Governor Alejandro García Padilla, Education Secretary Rafael Roman Melendez, University of Puerto Rico President Uroyoán Walker Romas, and Senate President Eduardo Bhatia and participated in a roundtable discussion at a successful turnaround school with local educators and students.

Puerto Rico is in crisis, and the growing burdens imposed by this crisis are increasingly harming the 3.5 million Americans living there. The Commonwealth has begun defaulting on some of its debts, and a disorderly default around the larger May and July payments could significantly worsen the crisis. Education, health, and public safety services are being curtailed because the government cannot pay all of its bills. In order to provide Puerto Rico with the tools it needs to restructure its debt, support reform, and enable growth, Congress needs to act.

The timing of Secretary King’s visit to Puerto Rico follows a letter from Puerto Rico Education Secretary Roman Melendez to U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan last week stating that, in the midst of Puerto Rico’s crisis, his agency does not have the funding required to meet the basic needs of the island’s public schools. Puerto Rico has already been forced to close 150 schools to address budget shortfalls and anticipates this number will grow to nearly 600 over the next five years, representing the closure of almost half of the island’s public schools. That’s staggering. Puerto Rico is now spending over one-third of its budget on debt service, more than five times the average amount paid by states, crowding out funds for essential services.

Puerto Rico’s crisis and lack of available cash is endangering payments for basic services for some 379,000 public school students, 58 percent of whom live below the poverty line. In early January, suppliers threatened to discontinue therapy services for thousands of special education students because Puerto Rico’s government has not been able to pay service providers for over three months. Also, there was concern students with disabilities would be unable to get to school because the bus company contracted to provide transportation had not be paid and threatened to stop providing service.

"We all understand that we must do more to help the students in Puerto Rico. But I'm very happy to see that everyone gathered here today at this school understands the importance of including the arts in their program, and the importance of maintaining order in the schools, so the students can feel safe in their learning environment," Secretary King said during his visit to Escuela Dr. Arturo Morales Carrion on Monday.

The school is using a federal School Improvement Grant (SIG) to help improve student outcomes, part of a $153.6 million grant that Puerto Rico received in 2011 to turn around its lowest performing schools.

Secretary King stopped by the school while traveling to the Commonwealth where his mother, Adalinda King, was born and where he was a school teacher after college.

“I am excited to spend some time during my family vacation to meet with students, educators, elected officials, and stakeholders who are so committed to improving student outcomes. I care deeply about the island – my mom was born here, and I taught here – and look forward to listening and learning about successes and challenges,” Secretary King said. “I recognize that Puerto Rico is facing tremendous financial issues, which are directly affecting the education system. I join others in the Administration in calling on Congress to address the crisis to prevent the situation from deteriorating further.”

The Administration continues to do all that we can to help Puerto Rico lay the foundation for economic growth. Secretary King is the third Cabinet Secretary to travel to Puerto Rico this year, following visits by Secretary Lew and Secretary Foxx as part of an Administration-wide effort to support Puerto Rico’s recovery. On April 1, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell will visit Puerto Rico to discuss efforts to strengthen travel and tourism.

However, only Congress has the authority to provide Puerto Rico with the tools required to lay the foundation for the Commonwealth’s recovery. As the Administration put forth in its Roadmap for Congressional Action, Puerto Rico urgently needs the ability to comprehensively restructure its financial liabilities paired with independent oversight that respects the Commonwealth’s self-governance. Congress must act now to prevent a worsening of the crisis and to protect the education of students in Puerto Rico.