A congressional hearing Wednesday about the president’s spending proposal for education ended up featuring extended conversation between U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona and lawmakers about the proper direction of history and civics education, as well as the importance of having students return to regular classrooms.
Cardona stressed to House lawmakers that he doesn’t want districts to slow-walk efforts to bring students back to classes on a full-time basis. The U.S. Department of Education has publicly made it a priority to help states and districts reopen schools, although significant disparities haves emerged between the participation of white students in full-time, in-person learning and their peers over the course of this school year.
“The best equity lever we have is in-person learning, now. Not the fall—now,” Cardona told lawmakers during the hearing, which was held to consider President Joe Biden’s fiscal 2022 budget request. “We need to get our kids back, right away.”
Cardona also said that Biden’s funding proposal, which would provide an unprecedented increase to funding programs serving disadvantaged students, was a way to help schools and teachers assist students in recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I look at this request as a way to honor the hard work of our educators,” Cardona said.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro, the chairwoman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the Education Department’s budget, also praised the budget, said the ideas behind it would help reverse “years of underinvestment in our education system.”
Biden’s budget proposal would provide roughly $103 billion to the Education Department. The blueprint includes $36 billion to the Title I program intended to serve K=-12 students from low-income households, more than double its current funding.
Although presidential administrations can propose budgets, Congress ultimately sets annual federal appropriations. Biden has yet to release a detailed funding breakdown for various Education Department programs in his budget blueprint.
Cardona highlights different perspectives and a limited federal role
Some of the more intense and prolonged interactions between Cardona and lawmakers, however, were inspired by recent controversy about what students are taught about American history and civics.
As educators grapple with the role of diversity, equity, and inclusion in classrooms and curriculum, controversy has grown over what children should be taught about “divisive concepts” related to racism, sexism, bias, and policy discrimination; lawmakers in at least eight states have considered restricting how teachers discuss such issues in schools. Public sparring and invective over classroom approaches to teaching about bias and race has been fueled in part by former President Donald Trump’s foray into the debate last year.
The Biden administration’s proposed priorities for a set of history grants unveiled last month reference the 1619 Project, a New York Times Magazine package putting slavery and its legacy at the foundation of American society, as well as anti-racism author and scholar Ibram X. Kendi. That proposal for the $5.3 million grants has turned up the heat on the issues still further; Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the GOP leader in the Senate, called the proposal “divisive nonsense.” These grants provide support for history and civics instruction, but not for a federal curriculum, which is prohibited by law.
Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., the ranking member of the House subcommittee where Cardona testified, quickly zeroed in on this issue. He said he was concerned that the Biden Education Department was creating an unnecessary and unhelpful controversy.
In March, Cole, DeLauro, and other lawmakers introduced the Civics Secures Democracy Act that would provide $1 billion in federal aid for civics education and require states to participate in a national assessment of students’ understanding of civics and history. Cole and DeLauro introduced civics legislation last year.
“It’s effectively, in my view, jeopardizing civics as a bipartisan priority,” Cole said, referring to the Biden administration’s proposed grant priorities. He added that the proposal has created “an impression that the administration cannot be trusted to promote civics education” in a collaborative way.
In response to those and other comments from Republican lawmakers, Cardona underscored that the federal government does not and cannot create or dictate curriculum for districts. Yet he also stressed the need for classroom lessons to function as a “window, a mirror, and a sliding door.” That’s a reference to the idea of children seeing worlds beyond their own, seeing themselves reflected in what they’re taught, and how they can enter different worlds through different lessons. He declined to say he’d withdraw or reconsider the proposed priorities.
“Students should always see themselves in curriculum,” Cardona said.
Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., also revisited a prominent issue during Cardona’s Senate confirmation hearing: transgender students’ participation in sports.
Harris asked Cardona whether he supported “biological boys competing with girls in school sports,” Cardona reiterated his position from the February Senate hearing, telling Harris, “Transgender students deserve every opportunity to participate in all school activities.” Harris said he was disappointed in this answer.
Republicans also indicated their disappointment in the size of the request, saying that it was too large, especially on the heels of previously enacted COVID-19 aid for education.
Cardona also asked about testing and discipline policies
Separately, Rep. Lois Frankel, D-Fla., raised the issue of flexibility from the federal government regarding standardized testing, and asked whether Cardona supported extending that flexibility.
The Education Department told states in February that the Biden administration would waive accountability requirements for schools related to annual standardized tests, but threw cold water on the idea that it would grant “blanket waivers” for states to cancel those tests. The department has granted a broad testing waiver to the District of Columbia and allowed a few states to reduce testing, but concerns about the validity of the scores and how school districts are approaching the tests persist.
“There’s no one way of doing it for everyone,” Cardona said of standardized testing. But he added that when it came to issues like allocating federal COVID-19 aid for schools, “Every little bit of data helps.”
Obama administration initiatives also came up. Rep. Katherine Clark, D-Mass., asked Cardona whether he would reinstitute Obama-era guidance that informed educators they could run afoul of civil rights laws if their schools discipline students of color at higher rates than their peers, even if their discipline policies were not explicitly discriminatory. The Trump administration revoked the guidance in late 2018.
Cardona said that students of color and those with disabilities are “targeted differently” in discipline policies. He called it a priority for him to make sure all students have “a fair shake,” but stopped short of explicitly promising to reintroduce the Obama-era guidance. Biden has previously promised to reinstate that guidance.
Cardona’s Wednesday appearance marked the first time the education secretary testified publicly to Congress since he was confirmed by the Senate on March 1.