A Slippery Slope

by John Marino

December 14, 2001
Copyright © 2001 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. JOHN MARINOIn a historic move this week, the U.S. Congress approved a plan to ratchet up the amount of Title 1 Education funds Puerto Rico receives until it will be treated the same way as the 50 U.S. states in 2008.

The plan could bring Puerto Rico an additional $300 million over the next six years -- which is great news for a public school system that is not only chronically short on computers but also books. The parity will be phased in over six years and bring Puerto Rico's share in the program from the current $269 million, or 75 percent of parity, to some $550 million annually in 2007. "It's a wonderful day for the children of Puerto Rico," enthused Gov. Sila Calderón at a Washington DC press conference announcing the plan.

For years, Puerto Rico officials - of all political persuasions - have lobbied Congress for parity in education funding, which had been capped for the island because of its commonwealth political status. Other programs still constrained by the caps include Medicaid, nutritional assistance and Supplemental Security Income.

Commonwealth supporters will likely use the victory to boost the current political status in San Juan. Their argument will go: If parity in federal funding is possible under commonwealth who needs statehood? But taken in a broader context, Title 1 funding parity is part of a larger trend by the federal government that argues that Puerto Rico should be treated like a state rather than a "separate" jurisdiction operating under particular rules.

For one thing, while the island will win parity in federal funding for education, it will also be under the federal scrutiny of mandatory testing of public school students required under President Bush's education reform bill.

Tests can be given in Spanish, but the commonwealth has less than four years to plan how students can reach national proficiency standards over a 12-year period.

Granting Title 1 parity to Puerto Rico goes beyond education, however. The trend to treat Puerto Rico more like a state is growing into a bi-partisan effort stateside.

President Bush was the only presidential candidate that backed statehood for Puerto Rico, rather than self-determination, and given such a stance, it can be reasonably expected that granting the island parity with states in federal programs is part of his larger plans.

The Democratic-controlled Senate was the impetus behind this effort to bring parity in educational funding to Puerto Rico, however. And while the Clinton administration always officially said it backed "self determination" for Puerto Rico, one of its last acts was to have the federal Justice Department offer a formal opinion on Puerto Rico's status options as part of a longer-range plan to resolve the island's status dilemma. The report, released last January, found that Puerto Rico's status problem really resides in its current status - or at least the commonwealth definition as propagated by the Popular Democratic Party - a bilateral pact, only alterable by mutual consent, between Puerto Rico and the United States. "The terms of the Constitution do not contemplate an option other than sovereign independence, statehood, or territorial status," the report stated.

That means the commonwealth is a colony, completely under the will of the U.S. Congress, and Puerto Rico has no ultimate authority in its own affairs. The power of Congress was brought into relief another way this week as well -- its action on Vieques, which overturned a deal crafted by a former U.S. president and a former Puerto Rico governor and killed a firm exit date for the Navy.

Commonwealth opponents here are all too willing to lay blame for its construction on the local Popular Democratic Party, while its creation owes at least as much to the United States, and Cold War expediency. But given recent Democratic and Republican actions on status, unless the PDP is willing to discuss the particulars of free association, it may find itself without people willing to listen to it on status in Washington. Ironically, as reluctant as the Congress is to trample into Puerto Rico affairs, Washington, DC might prove more powerful than San Juan in pushing the status debate forward.

Here in San Juan, status may be a part of the daily discussion, but people are more interested in the economy and wiping out crime and public corruption.

It is in Washington where the real debate may last, especially if Puerto Rico politicians of all political persuasions, like they've been doing for years, continue to press for parity in federal spending programs. Part of this will owe to the fact that Congressmen are increasingly won over by the decent sentiment of granting parity in social programs to all areas of the United States.

But if the current trend continues, the discussion will ultimately come down to taxation and representation.


John Marino, City Editor of The San Juan Star, writes the weekly Puerto Rico Report column for the Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached directly at: Marino@coqui.net

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