Nominee for education secretary Miguel Cardona vowed at his Senate confirmation hearing Wednesday to help schools reopen safely and ensure educators and students have the support they need during the COVID-19 pandemic. But Cardona did not take a firm position on the role of standardized tests during the pandemic, and in general tried to stake out positions on controversial issues such as the rights of transgender students without seeming combative.
President Joe Biden’s pick to lead the U.S. Department of Education told members of the Senate education committee that future pandemic relief funding from Congress must focus on helping students recover from COVID-19 academically and in other ways. Cardona, currently the Connecticut commissioner of education, championed the importance of public schools schools without criticizing charter schools or private school choice.
And in response to questions from several Republican senators who questioned the fairness of transgender female students competing in girls’ athletic contests, Cardona insisted that schools had an obligation to provide transgender students the chance to participate in activities like sports.
“My passion is really to ensure quality schools, period,” Cardona said, highlighting his own experience working in public schools."I’m a strong proponent of making sure all schools are quality schools. Most parents want to send their children to their neighborhood school.”
He told lawmakers in Spanish, “In unity there is strength.” And he pledged to senators, “We will work to reopen schools safely.”
Cardona’s confirmation hearing lacked the tension or open hostility that characterized the 2017 confirmation hearing of his predecessor, former education secretary Betsy DeVos; the top Republican senator on the committee, Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, called Cardona “eminently qualified” and indicated that he was open to voting to confirm Cardona. Democrats control the Senate through Vice President Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote, and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., assumed her role as the new Senate education committee chair Wednesday.
Cardona previously worked as a classroom teacher, principal, and assistant superintendent. He became Connecticut’s education commissioner in 2019.
Biden announced Cardona as his nominee in December, at a time of unprecedented disruption for schools. If confirmed by the Senate, Cardona will have his hands full fulfilling the Biden administration’s pledge to provide K-12 schools with clear technical guidance about safely reopening, and to collect and disseminate data about the impact of COVID-19 on schools and students.
The question of standardized tests looms large
Perhaps the most immediate question Cardona will face is whether to grant waivers to states that don’t want to give students federally mandated tests this spring, given the challenges many schools face. That question has divided the education community, with teachers’ unions opposing the idea, but other groups saying they’re needed to help identify students who need more support and what their needs are.
In response to a question from Burr in which the senator questioned the value of standardized testing during the pandemic, Cardona didn’t take a firm stance on whether states should give them and exactly how they should be used. He said that assessments can help get more resources to students in need, but also said states should have input into how they are used during the pandemic.
“I don’t think we need to be bringing students [into schools] just to test them on a standardized test. I don’t think that makes any sense,” Cardona told Burr. However, he added that, “If we don’t assess where our students are and their level of performance, it’s going to be difficult for us to provide some targeted support.”
States including Michigan and New York don’t want to administer the exams, while states such as Arkansas and Texas have said they plan to give them. Cardona did not specify that tests mandated by the Every Student Succeeds Act are the only assessments that could provide helpful information.
Cardona will also have to decide whether to waive requirements under ESSA that states must use scores from those tests to rate schools and districts and require interventions to help struggling students.
Cardona signaled an openness to waiving such mandates. He told Burr that when it comes to how any test scores are used, states should have significant input over “whether those assessments should be tied into any accountability as well.”
Last year as Connecticut’s education commissioner, Cardona told schools that the state planned to administer the tests required by ESSA, citing their importance to identifying and addressing the needs of disadvantaged students.
Hot topics: COVID-19 funding and reopening schools
While the Education Department does not exercise a great deal of control over local schools’ reopening decisions, Cardona highlighted his own experience helping many Connecticut schools resume in-person learning during this school year, telling Murray that he and other state education leaders “were open and transparent with what we knew.”
More broadly, Cardona said there are schools throughout the country that have been “able to reopen safely and do so while following mitigation strategies.” He stressed the importance of students being in classrooms, even though, he noted, “Our students have shown us a level of resilience that I don’t think we’ve ever seen in history before.”
In response to a question from Sen. Roger Marshall, R-Kan., about the “secret potion” he used in Connecticut for reopening schools, for example, Cardona cited the importance of issuing clear guidance to local education leaders, as well as forming a “very clear partnership with our health and safety experts who understood pathology.”
“We have some communities with high schools of 150 students, we have other communities with high schools with 3,000 students,” Cardona said.
Asked by Burr whether he thought teachers should have priority in getting the COVID-19 vaccine and whether teachers and students should be vaccinated before schools resume in-person classes, Cardona said educators in general (not just teachers) should have vaccine priority. He also stressed the importance of virus testing. “I recognize the frustration, distrust, and fear that’s out there,” he said. He did not share an opinion about the importance of student vaccinations, however.
Cardona said the $67 billion in federal coronavirus relief for K-12 approved by Congress last year has helped Connecticut schools mitigate against the virus. But he said future COVID-19 relief for schools must focus on learning recovery, helping traumatized students, and preserving education jobs. (The Biden administration has proposed $130 billion for K-12 schools to address those and other needs.)
And in both his introductory remarks and in exchanges with senators, Cardona prioritized disadvantaged students like those in communities without many resources. He said the pandemic had exacerbated and not created inequities that must be addressed by education leaders across the board.
“We’re going to need more counselors in our schools. We’re going to need to make sure we have summer programming. We’re going to need to make sure we have extended day,” Cardona said in response to a question from Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H. “If we really want to recover, we really need to invest now or we’re going to pay later.”
‘Discrimination based on gender is illegal’
While the hearing featured little drama, Republicans did press Cardona about his views on issues involving transgender students, at times using provocative language that troubled LGBTQ rights advocacy groups.
The issue of transgender students participating on sports teams that align with their gender identity has become a controversial one in states, including Connecticut recently. The Trump administration said Connecticut schools violated federal Title IX law by permitting transgender girls to compete on girls’ sports teams, a policy that is the subject of an ongoing federal lawsuit.
However, the Biden administration has pledged to reinstitute Obama administration guidance, subsequently overturned by the Trump administration, that transgender students have the right to use school facilities based on their gender identity.
In an Inauguration Day executive order, Biden directed agencies to ensure that federal laws that ban discrimination on the basis of sex also cover gender identity and sexual orientation. He cited a June 2020 Supreme Court ruling about employment discrimination.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., asked Cardona directly whether he agreed with the idea of transgender girls participating in girls’ track meets.
“I think it’s critically important at that educators and education systems respect the rights of all students, including transgender students,” Cardona said. Paul was dissatisfied with this answer and pressed him again; Cardona responded that schools “have the legal responsibility of schools to provide opportunities” for students to participate inactivities.
Eventually Paul dropped the line of questioning, but said he was disappointed in Cardona’s apparent support for transgender girls participating in girls’ sports. “A lot of us think that’s bizarre, not very fair,” Paul told Cardona. “I think most people in the country think it’s bizarre and unfair. You’re going to run the Department of Education and you think that’s OK? That concerns me.”
In discussing the issue, Marshall, of Kansas, said, “I just don’t think it’s American that a genotypical male, a person with a Y chromosome, is competing against girls.” Cardona had a blunt response, saying, “Discrimination based on gender is illegal.”
And Cardona told Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., that, “I feel it’s nonnegotiable to make sure that our learning environments are places that are free of discrimination and harassment for all learners, including our LGBTQ students.”
In contrast to Marshall and Paul, Murray weighed in to stress the need to protect transgender students based on their gender identity.
“I was deeply disappointed by the way the Trump administration failed to defend the rights of all our students to feel safe and to attend schools without being discriminated against,” Murray said. She also said she expected quick action from the Education Department to change the Title IX rule on sexual misconduct for K-12 and higher education the Trump administration released last year.
Other Democrats focused on issues like school discipline and diversity. In a conversation with Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., about discipline, Cardona talked about his focus on understanding students’ perspectives and monitoring data about the situation to support them, instead of suspending or expelling them from school.
“It’s hard to learn if you’re being excluded from the learning environment,” Cardona told Murphy. “You have to really engage students as partners in the process.”
The Biden administration has pledged to reinstate Obama-era guidance focused on reducing racial disparities in school discipline that Trump rescinded.
As Connecticut education commissioner, Cardona has also supported a state requirement that schools offer high school courses such as Black and Puerto Rican history. Cardona told Murphy that “having a diverse environment is a better environment.” And in an exchange with Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., about bilingual students, he said, “We honor students’ bilingualism by also honoring their culture.”
Choice, career pathways and special education
Biden has pledged to “fully fund” special education, which would mean that the federal government would pay for 40 percent of the cost of K-12 special education services, as required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. However, Congress has never come close to meeting this threshold.
Asked by Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., about what it would mean to reach that 40 percent level, Cardona responded, “It would be a game-changer for public education and for our students with disabilities, and all of our school communities.”
He also told Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., that he supported better screening tools in the early grades to help determine students’ special needs. However, he did not explicitly agree with Cassidy that there should be universal screening for dyslexia in kindergarten and 1st grade students; up to one in five children have dyslexia, according to estimates.
Cardona navigated a question about school choice carefully. When Tim Scott, R-S.C., said Cardona should support school choice programs like the District of Columbia voucher program, the nominee didn’t directly disagree, and said he knew of great charter schools in Connecticut.
But he also told Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., when asked about the issue that, “Public education, public schools in our neighborhoods, need to be developed. That’s the bedrock of our country.”
Several senators also discussed the importance of career-technical education. Cardona noted that he attended a technical high school himself before deciding to go to college. He said schools must do better helping students understand early on the various career as well as college options that are available to them, and stressed his own background in Connecticut working with businesses as well as colleges and universities.
“Right now, there are great, high-paying jobs that are going unfilled because we are not as aligned as we need to be,” Cardona told Kaine.
He also threw in an expression he had heard in Connecticut: “Welders who code have it made.”
Evie Blad, Staff Writer contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the February 10, 2021 edition of Education Week as Miguel Cardona Pressed by Lawmakers on Tests, Reopening Schools, and Transgender Students