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Miguel Cardona in the Hot Seat: 4 Takeaways From a Contentious House Hearing

By Libby Stanford — May 07, 2024 6 min read
Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona testifies during a House Committee on Education and Workforce hearing on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, May 7, 2024, in Washington.
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The chaotic and substantially delayed rollout of a simplified FAFSA form, rising reports of antisemitism at K-12 schools and on college campuses, Biden administration efforts to execute student-debt relief, and new Title IX regulations dominated a U.S. House of Representatives hearing with Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona on Tuesday.

Spanning more than three hours, the House education and workforce committee hearing gave Republican House members a chance to lambaste the education secretary. Meanwhile, Cardona defended the Biden administration’s education record and made an appeal to representatives to pass the administration’s 2025 budget proposal, particularly to boost funding for the Education Department’s office for civil rights so it can more swiftly investigate a rising number of complaints.

Rep. Virginia Foxx, a North Carolina Republican who chairs the committee, said she would give Cardona an F for his leadership of the Education Department. She called for his resignation as well as the agency’s elimination.

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Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters presides over a special state Board of Education meeting discuss to the U.S. Department of Education's "Proposed Change to its Title IX Regulations on Students' Eligibility for Athletic Teams", Wednesday, April 12, 2023, in Oklahoma City.
Oklahoma's superintendent of public instruction, Ryan Walters presides over a special state Board of Education meeting on April 12, 2023, in Oklahoma City to discuss the U.S. Department of Education's proposed changes to Title IX rules that would prohibit states from categorically banning transgender athletes from playing on teams that align with their gender identity. Walters was among four conservative state education chiefs who spoke at the national summit for the group Moms for Liberty on June 30.
Sue Ogrocki/AP

“There are good reasons why the word ‘education’ does not appear in the Constitution,” Foxx said. “Education is done best when it’s handled at the local level.”

Democrats shared concerns about the botched FAFSA—or Free Application for Federal Student Aid—rollout and rising antisemitism and Islamophobia at schools. They said Republicans weren’t helping, however.

“Complaining about a problem is not a solution,” said Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia, the committee’s ranking Democrat. “At the end of the day, if we want to reduce rising tensions on college campuses, we need to advance meaningful legislation that addresses the problem.”

Here are key takeaways from a hearing with Cardona in the hot seat

1. Cardona says FAFSA rollout is back on track

When the Education Department “soft launched” the 2024-25 FAFSA in December, the goal was for the simplified form to make it easier for high school students to apply for federal student aid. Instead, it’s plagued by delays and technical failures that have locked students out and delayed the entire college-admissions process this year, leading to substantially fewer students applying for aid and, potentially, ultimately enrolling in college.

According to the National College Attainment Network, 35.6 percent of graduating high school seniors had completed the FAFSA as of April 26, a 24.3 percent drop from the same time last year.

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Cardona said the Education Department is working to boost the completion rate. On Monday, the agency announced a $50 million grant program to help school districts, state education agencies, nonprofits, and other organizations get more students to apply for aid.

Cardona characterized the new FAFSA as complementing the administration’s efforts to relieve student-loan debt, which Republicans have opposed and an early version of which the Supreme Court rejected.

“Even the better FAFSA, which as frustrating and challenging as it has been with delays and delays—I know how frustrating that is—this is all intended to fix a system that for too long has kept people out with regard to repayment,” he said.

Despite Cardona’s assurances that the department’s FAFSA rollout will be smooth going forward, members of Congress from both parties are still concerned. On Tuesday, a bipartisan group of lawmakers including Foxx, Scott, and their Senate counterparts—Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Bill Cassidy, R-La.—sent Cardona a letter urging him to ensure the rollout of next year’s FAFSA doesn’t face the same glitches.

The department typically publishes a draft of the FAFSA form for the following year in February or March, but it has yet to do that for the 2025-26 form.

Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona testifies during a House Committee on Education and Workforce hearing on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, May 7, 2024, in Washington.

2. Cardona asks for more funding to enforce civil rights law

Cardona on Tuesday condemned antisemitism and echoed President Joe Biden’s recent statements on protests that have overtaken college campuses, saying “dissent must never lead to disorder.”

“Hate has no place on college campuses, and every student deserves to learn in an environment where they can feel free to be themselves without discrimination or fear for their safety,” the secretary said.

On Tuesday, the Education Department also released a “Dear Colleague” letter restating colleges’ and K-12 schools’ obligations under civil rights law.

As of Tuesday, the department’s Office for Civil Rights listed 141 ongoing investigations into alleged discrimination based on a person’s national origin involving religion. It doesn’t specify which cases pertain to antisemitism, but Cardona confirmed that there’s been a stark rise in antisemitism and related complaints since the onset of the Israel-Hamas war.

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Officers with the New York Police Department raid the encampment by pro-Palestinian protesters at Columbia University on April 30, 2024, in New York. The protesters had seized the administration building, known as Hamilton Hall, more than 20 hours earlier in a major escalation as demonstrations against the Israel-Hamas war spread on college campuses nationwide.
New York City police officers raid the encampment of pro-Palestinian protesters at Columbia University on April 30, 2024. Although not as turbulent as what is happening on many college campuses, K-12 schools in some pockets of the country are also contending with conflict stemming from the Israel-Hamas war.
Marco Postigo Storel via AP

Ninety-eight of the pending investigations were opened after Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel.

So far, the department has closed two antisemitism-related cases, Cardona said. Typically, it takes six to eight months for OCR to investigate and close a complaint, he said.

“We’re witnessing an explosion of antisemitic incidents on college campuses, and I’m concerned the department is not living up to its obligation of upholding Title VI of the Civil Rights Act,” which bans discrimination on the basis of race or religion, Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Mich., told Cardona.

The secretary said the department would be better equipped to handle those cases with more funding and more investigators at the agency’s office for civil rights. The Biden administration requested a $22 million increase for the office in its 2025 budget proposal, which is pending before Congress.

Cardona said the added funding, which would bring the office’s budget to $162 million, would help the department more quickly respond to discrimination and harassment complaints.

“In 2009, we had 58 more investigators for Title VI and we had a third of the cases,” Cardona said. “We are desperately in need of additional support to make sure we can investigate the cases that we have in front of us.”

3. Republicans push back on Title IX regulations

Some Republicans Tuesday criticized Cardona for the department’s new Title IX regulation, which was finalized April 19.

The new rule, which takes effect Aug. 1, expands protections for LGBTQ+ students by explicitly stating that discrimination based on a person’s gender identity or sexuality is prohibited under Title IX, the federal law that bans sex discrimination at federally funded schools.

Since its announcement, at least 15 Republican-led states have joined lawsuits against the regulation, and leaders in some have told districts not to comply with the new rule.

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F. Sheehan for Education Week + iStock / Getty Images Plus

While the rule doesn’t directly address transgender students’ participation in school athletics, a handful of Republicans on Tuesday still accused the Biden administration of endangering girls’ sports.

“The Title IX rule and the guidance that you are putting out, that you’ve been putting out for three years, is taking away the safety of our daughters in their private spaces in their locker rooms and showers and taking away their athletic and educational opportunities,” said Rep. Mary Miller, R-Ill.

4. Cardona, Republicans find common ground on career and technical education

Cardona and Republicans found some common ground on Tuesday, in addressing career and technical education.

The department plans to release new regulations for Perkins V, the law that provides funding for CTE programs, in August. Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., asked Cardona what educators might expect.

“Unfortunately, in many districts, [the Perkins grant] is relegated to very small programming and doesn’t really touch the mainstream programming of our high schools,” Cardona said. “The goal here is to really get to what you and I both agree is next for our country, which is more access to career and technical education programs.”

The Biden administration has also asked for more funding for CTE programs through the Perkins grant in its 2025 budget, proposing a $40 million increase that would bring total funding for the program to $1.5 billion.

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