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“We are here today, in the midst of one of the most difficult school years in American history,” Miguel Cardona said Wednesday in the opening speech of the Senate Committee on Education. “For far too many of our students, this year has been building up crisis after crisis. As a parent and educator, I have experienced these challenges alongside millions of families.”
Cardona is President Biden’s choice to be the next US Secretary of Education. On Wednesday, he appeared before the committee in view of his appointment to answer questions on a range of issues, from reopening schools during the pandemic to student debt cancellation and school policies for transgender students.
Cardona has served as Connecticut’s education commissioner for a year and a half, arguing forcefully that schools should reopen during the COVID-19 crisis to prevent the equity gaps from widening. Prior to that, he spent his entire career working for the public school system that helped him raise him – as a fourth-grade teacher, principal and deputy superintendent in the former industrial town of Meriden, in the Connecticut.
Throughout his career, Cardona has been a strong advocate for children from low income families, students with disabilities and learners of English. Cardona’s parents moved from Puerto Rico, as did many families from Meriden.
“There is a saying in Spanish: En la union está la fuerza,” Cardona told the Senate committee. “In unity there is strength.”
The hearing was a test of whether Republicans would unite to support Cardona’s nomination – or reject him, as much as Democrats denounced his predecessor, Betsy DeVos four years ago forcing then-vice president Mike Pence to vote for her.
Indeed, Cardona received a relatively warm welcome from most lawmakers, with the committee-ranking Republican Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina calling him “eminently qualified” for the post and encouraging his colleagues to. support his nomination.
For many members of the Senate Education Committee and much of the country, today’s hearing was their first meeting with Cardona, who is new to the national scene. And the stakes are perhaps higher than they have ever been for a potential Secretary of Education.
Safe reopening of the school
Across the country, many large school districts, serving millions of children, remain closed, with fights between teachers, school leaders and families over when and how to reopen, more and more bitter. Meanwhile, President Biden is hopeful that Cardona can help him deliver on his promise to put the majority of K-8 schools back into session in his first 100 days.
On Biden’s sense of urgency, there was a bipartisan agreement. “We need schools to open and stay open safely,” Burr said.
When asked how his experience in leading Connecticut’s reopening efforts would inform his national approach, Cardona highlighted his reputation as a communicator.
“We have relied very closely on science. We have partnered with our state public health experts and created a system of regular and intentional communication,” Cardona told lawmakers.
In this sense, he also pledged, if confirmed, to work with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to provide schools nationwide with scientific guidance, as well as an increase in surveillance testing for teachers and students, and urged all educators, public and private, to prioritize immunization.
On whether schools should resume standardized end-of-year tests this spring – tests that DeVos initially on break at the onset of the pandemic – Cardona suggested that while he believes testing offers important insight into student learning – or lost learning – he also understands that testing may not be realistic for many. many vulnerable children who can still learn at home with limited access to technology.
“I don’t think we need to bring in students just to test them… I don’t think that makes sense,” Cardona said. Yet, he insisted, “if we do not assess where our students are and how well they are performing, it will be difficult for us to provide targeted support and allocation of resources in the way that can best help them. fill in the gaps that have been exacerbated by this pandemic. “
When asked about his position on the importance of additional funding related to COVID-19 for schools, Cardona said: “We really have to invest now, or we will pay later.”
Senator Mitt Romney, a Republican from Utah, backed down, saying President Biden’s pressure to hire more teachers and reduce class sizes, when teachers’ unions would like it, “will not result in a real improvement in the scores and performance of our young people. “
Cardona responded, drawing on her own experience as a fourth grade teacher and principal, stating: “I can tell you that when I have 15 students in front of me versus 28 students in front of me, I am able to give more specialized courses. watch out for these 15 students.
Cardona’s personal experience as the son of Puerto Rican parents was also featured in an exchange with Democrat Tina Smith of Minnesota when he said, “We really need to rethink the way we are. [serving English language learners], and understand the value and benefit of being not only bilingual in this country, but also bicultural. “
The choice of school played only a minor role in today’s hearing. Asked by Sen. Tim Scott, a Republican from South Carolina, about his stance on the choice, Cardona said: “I agree that there are some great examples of charter schools. I have seen a lot of them in the Connecticut.”
But Cardona also doubled down on the idea that “most parents want to send their children to their neighborhood school, so it’s very important that we support all schools, including neighborhood schools which are usually the first choice for children. families of this community “.
“My passion is really to ensure quality schools, period,” Cardona said. “Make sure we don’t support a win-lose system where if you go into a school you have a chance to be successful, but if you don’t go into a school your options at least lead to a belief that you can’t do it. “
Student loan debt forgiveness
As discussions of reopening schools dominated the audience, a question of the presidential campaign was repeatedly raised: whether President Biden would attempt to use the United States Department of Education to unilaterally cancel federal student loan debts without working with Congress.
“I am not impatient to see the Biden administration pursue dangerous and reckless proposals to simply forgive student loans,” Burr said. “The assertions of some that [the] The higher education law allows this to extend the law beyond recognition. I hope you and the White House don’t pursue this. Instead, I urge you to work with Republicans and Democrats in the Senate to pass legislation that dramatically simplifies student loan repayment options. “
Previously, Cardona had said that while debt cancellation would be a priority for him as secretary, he would try to achieve this by working in collaboration with Congress.
Cardona reiterated his support for debt cancellation when questioned by Senator Elizabeth Warren, the Democrat of Massachusetts, but he did not pledge to act unilaterally, although Warren insisted that “The law is clear,” that she thinks the education secretary has the power to immediately write off $ 50,000 in federal student loan debt for each student borrower.
School policies for transgender students
In an unusually tense exchange, Sen. Rand Paul, a Republican from Kentucky, asked Cardona if he supports a Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference (CIAC) initiative to allow transgender students to participate in identity-based sports. gender. In May 2020, the Civil Rights Office (OCR) of the Ministry of Education sent a letter to the CIAC saying that the policy violates Title IX.
Paul called Connecticut’s policy “bizarre” and “not very fair,” saying Cardona’s support would lead the vast majority of the country to wonder, “‘What planet are you from?'”
“I think it is extremely important that education systems and educators respect the rights of all students, including transgender students,” Cardona said. “And that they have the opportunity that all the other students have to participate in extracurricular activities.”
Paul persisted, “Are you okay with boys competing with girls then?”
“With respect, senator, I think I answered the question,” replied Cardona. “I think schools should provide opportunities for students to participate in extracurricular activities, even if they are transgender.”
Later in the hearing, speaking more broadly about protections for LGBTQ students, Cardona said, “It is non-negotiable to ensure that our learning environments are places free from discrimination and harassment for all. learners. “
The issue was raised by several Republicans on the committee, including Romney and Sen. Roger Marshall of Kansas.
Community college and vocational and technical education
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have expressed support for programs that provide high school graduates with academic and career paths that don’t require an expensive four-year degree.
At one point, Cardona referred to her own experience studying automotive technology at a vocational high school in Meriden. He also reiterated his belief that community colleges “are critically important not only for post-pandemic reconstruction, but truly for our future education plan.”
“What we need to do more is make these programs more available and more accessible earlier to our learners. t afford it ”, we really need to break down these mental barriers that may exist from generation to generation, and really give them access to that. “
With the exception of the exchange with Paul and related criticisms of Romney and Marshall, Cardona appeared to enjoy bipartisan support, suggesting that his subsequent confirmation vote in the Senate may not have been the highlight that it was. for Betsy DeVos four years ago.
Eda Uzunlar is an intern at NPR’s education office.