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Education Pick Miguel Cardona's Message To Lawmakers: 'En La Unión Está La Fuerza'

President Biden's education secretary nominee, Miguel Cardona, appeared before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on Wednesday.
Anna Moneymaker
The New York Times via AP
President Biden's education secretary nominee, Miguel Cardona, appeared before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on Wednesday.

"We're here today, in the midst of one of the most challenging school years in American history," Miguel Cardona said in opening remarks to the Senate education committee on Wednesday. "For far too many of our students, this year has piled on crisis after crisis. As a parent, and as an educator, I have lived those challenges alongside millions of families."

Cardona is President Biden's pick to be the next U.S. secretary of education. On Wednesday, he appeared before the committee considering his nomination to answer questions about a range of issues, from reopening schools during the pandemic to student loan debt forgiveness and school policies for transgender students.

Cardona has served as Connecticut's education commissioner for the past year and a half, arguing forcefully that schools should reopen during the COVID-19 crisis to keep equity gaps from growing ever wider. Before that, he spent his entire career working for the public school system that helped raise him — as a fourth grade teacher, principal and assistant superintendent in the old factory town of Meriden, Conn.

Throughout his career, Cardona has been a fierce advocate for kids in low-income families, students with disabilities and English language learners. Cardona's parents moved from Puerto Rico, like many families in Meriden.

"There is a saying in Spanish: En la unión está la fuerza," Cardona told the Senate committee. "In unity there is strength."

The hearing was a test of whether Republicans would unify to back Cardona's nomination — or reject him, much as Democrats denounced his predecessor, Betsy DeVos, four years ago, forcing then-Vice President Mike Pence to cast the tie-breaking vote in her favor.

Indeed, Cardona received a relatively warm welcome from most of the lawmakers, with the committee's ranking Republican, Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, calling him "eminently qualified" for the job and encouraging colleagues to support his nomination.

For many on the Senate education committee, and much of the country, today's hearing was their first time meeting Cardona, who is new to the national stage. And the stakes are, perhaps, higher than they have ever been for a potential secretary of education.

Safe school reopening

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, growing increasingly bitter. Meanwhile, President Biden is hoping Cardona can help him make good on his promise to get the majority of K-8 schools back in-session within his first 100 days.

On Biden's sense of urgency, there was bipartisan agreement. "We need schools to open safely and to stay open safely," Burr said.

When asked how his experience running Connecticut's reopening efforts would inform his national approach, Cardona underscored his reputation as a communicator.

"We relied very closely on the science. We partnered with our public health experts in the state and created a system of communication that was regular and intentional," Cardona told lawmakers.

Along those lines, he also committed, if confirmed, to working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to provide schools nationally with science-driven guidance, as well as increased surveillance testing for teachers and students, and urged that all educators, public and private, be prioritized for vaccination.

On the matter of whether schools should be expected to resume year-end standardized testing this spring — testing that DeVos initially paused at the beginning of the pandemic — Cardona suggested that, while he believes testing offers an important snapshot of student learning — or lost learning — he also understands that testing may not be realistic for many vulnerable kids who may still be learning at home with limited access to technology.

"I don't think we need to be bringing students in just to test them... I don't think that makes any sense," Cardona said. Still, he insisted, "If we don't assess where our students are and their level of performance, it's going to be difficult for us to provide targeted support and resource allocation in the manner that can best support the closing of the gaps that have been exacerbated due to this pandemic."

When asked for his position on the importance of additional, COVID-19-related funding for schools, Cardona said, "We really need to invest now, or we're going to pay later."

Sen. Mitt Romney, a Utah Republican, pushed back, saying President Biden's push to hire more teachers and reduce class sizes, while it would please the teachers unions, "will not result in the actual improvement in the scores and the performance of our young people."

Cardona responded by drawing on his own experience as a fourth-grade teacher and principal, saying, "I can tell you, when I have 15 students in front of me versus 28 students in front of me, I'm able to give more specialized attention to those 15 students."

Cardona's personal experience, as the son of parents from Puerto Rico, also featured in an exchange with Democrat Tina Smith, of Minnesota, when he said, "We really have to rethink how we're [serving English language learners], and understand the value and benefit of not only being bilingual in this country, but being bicultural."

School choice

School choice played only a minor role in the day's hearing. When asked by Sen. Tim Scott, a South Carolina Republican, about his position on choice, Cardona said, "I recognize that there are excellent examples of charter schools. I've seen many in Connecticut."

But Cardona also doubled down on the idea that "most parents want to send their children to their neighborhood school, so it's really important that we support all schools, including those neighborhood schools that are usually the first choice for families in that community."

"My passion really is to ensure quality schools, period," Cardona said. "Making sure that we're not supporting a system of winners and losers where, if you get into a school, you have an opportunity for success, but if you don't get into a school, your options lead to at least a belief that you can't make it."

Student loan debt forgiveness

While talk of school reopening dominated the hearing, one issue from the presidential campaign trail came up repeatedly: Whether President Biden would attempt to use the U.S. Education Department to unilaterally forgive federal student loan debts without working with Congress.

"I'm not eager to see the Biden administration pursue dangerous and foolhardy proposals to simply forgive student loans," said Burr. "The claims by some that [the] Higher Education Act allows this would stretch the law beyond recognition. I hope that you and the White House don't pursue that. Instead I invite you to work with Republicans and Democrats in the Senate to pass legislation that dramatically simplifies student loan repayment options."

Previously, Cardona has said that, while debt forgiveness would be a priority for him as secretary, he would try to achieve it by working collaboratively with Congress.

Cardona reiterated his support for debt forgiveness when questioned by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts Democrat, but he did not commit to acting unilaterally, even as Warren insisted that "the law is clear," that she believes the education secretary has the authority to immediately cancel $50,000 in federal student loan debt for every student borrower.

School policies for transgender students

In an unusually tense exchange, Sen. Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, asked Cardona if he supported a move by the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference (CIAC) to allow transgender students to participate in sports based on gender identity. In May 2020, the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) sent a letter to the CIAC saying the policy violates Title IX.

Paul called the Connecticut policy "bizarre" and "not very fair," saying Cardona's support for it would lead the vast majority of the country to wonder, "'What planet are you from?'"

"I think that it's critically important that the education systems and educators respect the rights of all students, including students who are transgender," Cardona argued. "And that they are afforded the opportunity that every other student has to participate in extracurricular activities."

Paul persisted: "You're OK, then, with boys competing with girls?"

"Respectfully senator, I think I answered the question," Cardona fired back. "I believe schools should offer the opportunity for students to engage in extracurricular activities, even if they're transgender."

Later in the hearing, speaking more broadly about protections for LGBTQ students, Cardona said, "It's non-negotiable to make sure that our learning environments are places that are free of discrimination and harrassment for all learners."

The issue was raised by several Republicans on the committee, including Romney and Sen. Roger Marshall of Kansas.

Community college, and career and technical education

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle voiced support for programs that give high school graduates college and career pathways that do not require an expensive, four-year degree.

At one point, Cardona referenced his own experience, studying automotive tech at a Meriden trade high school. He also reiterated his belief that community colleges "are critically important to not only rebuilding after the pandemic but really just our plan forward in education."

"What we need to do more is make those programs more available and more accessible earlier for our learners. For first-generation college students in particular, who might think about college and think, early on, 'That's not for me. I can't afford it,' we need to really remove those mental barriers that may exist generationally, and really give them access to that."

With the exception of the exchange with Paul, and related criticism from Romney and Marshall, Cardona seemed to enjoy bipartisan support, suggesting his subsequent Senate confirmation vote may not be the nail-biter it was for Betsy DeVos four years ago.

Eda Uzunlar is an intern on NPR's Education Desk.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Cory Turner reports and edits for the NPR Ed team. He's helped lead several of the team's signature reporting projects, including "The Truth About America's Graduation Rate" (2015), the groundbreaking "School Money" series (2016), "Raising Kings: A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep" (2017), and the NPR Life Kit parenting podcast with Sesame Workshop (2019). His year-long investigation with NPR's Chris Arnold, "The Trouble With TEACH Grants" (2018), led the U.S. Department of Education to change the rules of a troubled federal grant program that had unfairly hurt thousands of teachers.