Wednesday, June 19, 2019 | Updated at 10:35 AM ET


Puerto Rico Education Secretary: Debt Crisis Rapidly Affecting Children's Health, Safety, Education Experience

First Posted: Mar 23, 2016 05:08 PM EDT

In a message to Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., Puerto Rico Education Secretary Rafael Roman Melendez further made the case about the commonwealth's debt crisis and the impact on children's education.

A "Deteriorating" Fiscal Crisis

According to Melendez, Puerto Rico's economic problems are "deteriorating at a very rapid pace," and it's taking a poll on children's health and safety.

"The programs I oversee are in distress as there is simply insufficient cash to address the needs of 379,818 children that attend public schools in Puerto Rico," wrote Melendez, noting that the children are the island's only hope to rescue the commonwealth's troubles. "Washington must act soon to avoid a preventable and irreparable harm to their development and wellbeing."

Acknowledging that his role, as secretary of education in the island, is to ensure children are given development opportunities particularly in social and educational skills. However, children are paying the consequences as a result of the congressional inaction, such as payments for classroom services, transportation, breakfast and lunch food supplies, "which are often the only meals some children consume during the day, as close to 58 [percent] of Puerto Ricans live in poverty."

Melendez also highlighted that Puerto Rico's special education program has also been affected, which comprises of 40 percent of public school students. He explained payment delays have occurred to service providers who provided disability therapies.

Illness Concerns and Impact

The education secretary also warned about the Zika virus' spread across the commonwealth. According to Melendez, more than 249 reported cases of the Zika virus have been made including over 24 pregnant women. He noted mosquitos are using septic tanks as breeding grounds and unfortunately many schools use septic tanks for wastewater services.

But Zika isn't the only health dilemma. Influenza is also on the rise. Melendez wrote that the Puerto Rico Department of Health is reporting an average of 1,300 cases of influenza every week, but the island is unable to maintain germ-free environments due to insufficient funds.

"Puerto Rico has some of the best teachers out here, to the point that stateside programs drive recruitment efforts in the island every year. And our teachers are fully committed to making sure all students receive the quality of education and care they deserve," wrote Melendez, later adding, "The crisis is also affecting their wellbeing; it hurts to see that the dreams and hopes of both teachers and students are jeopardized because of the poor policies of the past in Washington and Puerto Rico, as well as the greed of unscrupulous lenders."

Melendez concluded his letter by urging Ryan to remain committed in finding a comprehensive solution to Puerto Rico's crises.

Ryan's Puerto Rico Commitment

Puerto Rico' has been calling for the "tools" to help restructure its liabilities; these "tools" include the same Chapter 9 bankruptcy rights as the 50 U.S. states. Garcia Padilla has said on numerous occasions that the island is not requesting a bailout to solve its more than $70 billion debt.

Last December, Ryan said provisions addressing Puerto Rico's financial crisis was excluded in the omnibus spending bill, but he gave select lawmakers the task submit recommendations solving Puerto Rico's debt. During a press call from Washington, D.C. on March 16, Puerto Rico Gov. Alejandro Garcia Padilla said he's been meeting with congressional lawmakers on Capitol Hill ahead of Ryan's March 31 deadline.

The governor is hoping for legislation that will give his government a "broad" restructuring framework and address the faltering health care system affecting the island's 3.5 million U.S. citizens. According to the governor, citing the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Zika virus may affect up to 20 percent of the territory's population by the end of this year. Garcia Padilla said the Zika virus is the latest issue of the island's worsening humanitarian crisis.


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