Punishment for Making Hard Choices in a Crisis: Federal Prison

Marguerite Roza:

This is a scenario we all know well: Responding to a crisis, the federal government quickly doles out sizable sums of relief dollars for schools with confusing rules about how education leaders can use it.

Here’s the part that’s maybe not so familiar: The federal government then discredits, prosecutes and imprisons an education leader for what amounts to a procedural error in spending the money, an error that (by the way) yields the leader no personal gain.

This is not a made-up scenario. It happened to Julia Keleher.

It’s a scenario that could have a chilling effect on district and state education leaders across the nation who are right now tasked with moving quickly to deploy federal relief funds.

Today’s crisis is the Covid-19 pandemic, and the $190 billion in federal pandemic relief money sent to states and districts is the closest thing to a blank check we’ve seen. Clearly there’s no playbook for this moment, and successive waves of U.S. Department of Education guidance have left many leaders unclear about how they’re allowed to spend the money.

Flash back to 2017, and the crisis was Puerto Rico, decimated from Hurricane Maria and facing a deepening financial predicament. With many of its historically low-performing schools in disrepair, and massive enrollment declines as families fled the island, the education system was in bad shape. The federal government sent nearly $500 million to rebuild schools and revamp the education system. Puerto Rico’s then-Secretary of Education, Julia Keleher, signed contracts to tackle the most immediate challenges quickly, including repairing buildings and working to resume and improve learning for the island’s remaining students as quickly as possible.