U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona defended the Biden administration’s proposed education budget before a U.S. House committee on Tuesday in a session that majority Republicans used to criticize the administration’s policies on transgender athletes’ participation in school sports, student debt relief, and civics education.
Cardona testified before the House Education and the Workforce Committee in a hearing titled “Examining the Policies and Priorities of the Department of Education.”
The U.S. Department of Education’s proposed $90 billion budget for the coming fiscal year would represent a $10.8 billion increase from fiscal 2023, and include more money for Title I, students with disabilities, English learners, early-childhood education, mental health supports, and community schools that provide additional, wrap-around services for students and families.
Tuesday’s hearing followed a similar session last week when Cardona appeared before a U.S. Senate Appropriations subcommittee, and it took place the same day President Joe Biden met with congressional leaders to try to resolve a standoff over raising the nation’s debt ceiling to avoid a first-ever default for the U.S. government.
House Republicans last month put forward a package of spending reductions in exchange for raising the debt ceiling. Cardona criticized that package during Tuesday’s hearing.
The White House has estimated that the Republican proposal would force a 22 percent across-the-board cut to non-defense programs, resulting in cuts to education line items such as Title I, which sends federal money to low-income schools, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the nation’s special education law.
“I’ve seen the impacts of Title I dollars, I’ve seen the impact of the IDEA dollars for our students,” Cardona said in response to a question about how the cuts would affect schools. “Cuts in these areas would negatively impact the students who need it most.”
The Education Department has said the House-approved spending package would take away funding for 60,000 teaching positions across the country through reductions to Title I, and 48,000 teachers through reductions to IDEA.
Who’s to blame for learning loss?
While Tuesday’s hearing focused largely on the budget, Republican committee members blamed Cardona for dramatic declines in student achievement.
Earlier this month, the civics and U.S. history scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress showed historic declines among 8th graders, bringing student achievement to 1990s levels. The results came on the heels of historic declines in math and reading achievement on the 2022 NAEP. History scores have been steadily declining since 2014.
Committee chairwoman Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., suggested that the department’s focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion has contributed to worsening student achievement in civics and history.
Foxx said it was no coincidence that students are showing declining achievement on the history and civics NAEP exams at the same time the Education Department announced that it would prioritize schools that show a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion when awarding history and civics grants.
“Mr. Secretary, I wish I could say the pervasive, progressive ideology championed by your department has stayed in university lecture halls, where students are mature enough to debate the concepts, but it has trickled down to K-12 school life,” Foxx said.
The grant announcement, however, came in April—a year after students took the history and civics NAEP exams.
Other Republicans accused Cardona of keeping schools closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, which they blamed for student achievement declines.
Cardona pushed back against those claims, pointing out that 46 percent of U.S. schools were fully open to in-person learning when he became secretary in March 2021.
“Within nine months we were over 98 percent of schools open full time,” Cardona said. “My actions prove that I too felt schools should reopen.”
Republicans push against Title IX proposals
Republicans on the committee also used the hearing as an opportunity to criticize the department for its proposed changes to Title IX, which would prohibit schools from banning all transgender students from playing sports consistent with their gender identity.
The rule has not yet been finalized but would likely put federal funding in jeopardy for districts that plan to prohibit all transgender girls from playing girls sports. While the rule would still allow schools to prevent or limit athletes from playing sports in specific circumstances, such as situations in which competitive fairness is a concern, the administration’s proposal would challenge laws in 21 mostly Republican-led states that completely ban transgender youth from joining school sports teams that align with their gender identity.
“There are feelings among the girls, among our daughters, that they’re being ignored,” said Rep. Mary Miller, R-Ill. “The purpose of Title IX was to give our daughters opportunities, opportunities to win championships and earn scholarships. By ignoring this and allowing men into our girls athletics, we are canceling those opportunities.”
Cardona said the Title IX change will expand opportunities for all students to play sports.
“We have the responsibility to ensure that all students can engage in all aspects of public school, including athletics, without having to be discriminated against,” Cardona said. “That’s what we’re proposing in our Title IX proposals.”