From his earliest days in office, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona sought to project the image of an experienced educator working alongside his former peers to steer the schools through a national health crisis.
But six months into his term, the COVID-19 pandemic has already disrupted a third consecutive school year in districts nationwide as students sit out for quarantines in some places and as resistance to virus precautions in hot-spot areas drive case rates higher.
That has put Cardona’s collegial approach to a test. His cheerful participation in vaccine promotion campaigns and his commitment to sharing “best practices” developed on the ground have sometimes been overshadowed in recent months by the more aggressive stance he has taken alongside the rest of President Joe Biden’s administration.
The continued spotlight on the health crisis also has drawn attention away from Cardona’s other priorities, including academic recovery efforts, school funding equity, and investment in programs like early education.
While the secretary has adopted a more forceful approach with those who oppose the administration’s stance on virus precautions, he seeks to maintain a collaborative tone in his public appearances, acknowledging the strain educators and parents have faced.
Cardona, once the state education chief in Connecticut, has now confronted his former peers in six states, launching federal civil rights investigations into bans on universal school mask mandates to determine if they infringe on the rights of students with disabilities.
“It’s simply unacceptable that state leaders are putting politics over the health and education of the students they took an oath to serve,” Cardona said last month, stoking pushback from state leaders who see the decision to wear a mask as an issue of personal liberty.
In trumpeting his message, Cardona has bypassed GOP governors who’ve prohibited school mask requirements, calling local superintendents directly to encourage defiance. And, as Biden announced new vaccine and testing requirements for federal workers and large employers this month, Cardona announced a new federal grant to reimburse schools that face state financial penalties for their virus precautions.
“We should be thanking districts for using proven strategies that will keep schools open and safe, not punishing them,” the education secretary said.
In pandemic response, Cardona values local voices
Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, a Republican whose state is under investigation for its ban on universal school mask mandates, recently accused the Biden administration of federal overreach and misplaced priorities for its actions on the coronavirus.
Cardona responded by doing an interview with Oklahoma City television station Fox 25, urging Stitt to “get out of the way” of local leaders who want to protect students.
Meanwhile, he kept up a steady stream of appearances with sympathetic leaders to cheerlead their efforts. Cardona appeared alongside a plush tiger school mascot at New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s back-to-school press conference. He shared a screen with Baby Dog, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice’s bulldog, during an event by the Republican governor to promote school vaccination efforts. He has toured school vaccine clinics in Kansas and interviewed student athletes about getting the shot. And he has participated in parent and educator forums alongside federal health officials.
Next week, Cardona and other senior Education Department officials will go on a back-to-school bus tour—with stops in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin—to “highlight schools and communities that have safely welcomed students back to in-person learning.”
“This is a ground game that we are talking about,” said Aaliyah Samuel, the deputy assistant secretary for state and local engagement at the U.S. Department of Education. “The conversation locally is very different from the conversation nationally.”
The conversation locally is very different from the conversation nationally.
Cardona has stressed hearing from “people on the ground,” dispatching teams to communities around the country to find out what their schools need, she said. Along the way, they’ve heard from school leaders who’ve lost beloved teachers and coaches to COVID-19. And they’ve learned more about how schools are using an unprecedented infusion of $122 billion in aid provided through the American Rescue Plan.
That fits with the image Cardona cast during his confirmation hearings as a problem-solver who seems far less likely than some of his predecessors to deliver a polarizing soundbite.
Arne Duncan, President Barack Obama’s first education secretary, once said criticism of the Common Core State Standards was driven by “white suburban moms” who were “disappointed that their child wasn’t as brilliant as they thought they were"—comments he later said he regretted. He also clashed with state leaders over issues like school improvement strategies and teacher evaluations.
Betsy DeVos, President Donald Trump’s education secretary, called public schools “government schools” and once said it was “ironic” when abortion-rights supporters don’t support the school choice policies she favors. She also made her own forceful push for in-person learning in the 2020-21 school year, suggesting governors should allow students to use state funding to attend private schools if their public school classrooms remained remote.
While Cardona’s policy decisions—like his approach to civil rights enforcement and a push for a more inclusive teaching of history —have drawn conservative pushback, he’s generally communicated in a more subtle manner, seeming to avoid statements that could trend on Twitter. For example, the week the Education Department released a legal interpretation that said Title IX protections apply to students’ sexual orientation and gender identity, Cardona wore a small LGBTQ pride pin on his lapel while he testified before a congressional committee.
That contrast may be by design, said Peter Cunningham, who served as an assistant secretary of education during Duncan’s tenure.
“Arne was really chosen to be a disrupter,” implementing school improvement strategies like Race to the Top and occasionally using a well-placed one-liner, said Cunningham, who works as a communications strategist.
Cardona, on the other hand, “was chosen because Joe Biden was looking for a career educator to stay focused on the bread-and-butter issues and not to get caught up in culture war issues or big debates over issues like national standards,” he said.
Andy Smarick, a former deputy assistant secretary of education in the George W. Bush administration and a former president of the Maryland board of education, said policy advocates across the political spectrum were heartened by Cardona’s initial post-nomination addresses, where he steered clear of “radioactive issues.”
Cardona, who has been a teacher, principal, and district administrator, often comes across “more like a school principal than any of his recent predecessors,” Smarick said.
“That was their signal to America and the school community that we are going to have Uncle Sam back off,” said Smarick. “Six months later, that seems to have been wishful thinking on my part.”
Conservatives have criticized the Education Department’s moves to reverse Trump-era civil rights approaches on issues like transgender student rights, racial disparities in school discipline, and how schools should respond to student complaints of sexual harassment and assault.
Smarick said states shouldn’t tie the hands of local decisionmakers on virus precautions, but that the federal agency is wrong to intervene, “making the distribution of power problem worse.”
Biden administration launches a more aggressive pandemic response
The pandemic, and schools’ widely varying responses to it, have been politically polarizing.
National leaders’ hopes for some degree of a return to normal in the spring soured this summer as low vaccination rates in some areas met with the spread of the more contagious COVID-19 Delta variant to drive up rates of infection, hospitalization, and death.
While children are less likely to grow severely ill from the coronavirus, they have made up a growing share of cases as the Delta variant spread throughout the country. States in the bottom 25 percent for vaccination rates have seen the number of children and teenagers admitted to the hospital rise four times faster than states with the highest quarter of vaccination rates, according to research released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this month.
While some state leaders have been criticized for acting with too little caution, there are also school districts that have faced criticism for using too much by adopting policies on student quarantines that are more aggressive than those recommended by the CDC. That has contributed to large-scale quarantines in some areas.
The most promising path through the pandemic is to get more eligible people vaccinated, health officials have said. But while schools have a huge stake in that outcome, Cardona has very little control over whether it is achieved. And many conservative Americans, who are among the most resistant to vaccines, are unlikely to change positions in response to messages from the Biden administration.
Frustration over low vaccination rates in general was evident last week as Biden unveiled a new plan.
“What makes it incredibly more frustrating is that we have the tools to combat COVID-19, and a distinct minority of Americans—supported by a distinct minority of elected officials—are keeping us from turning the corner,” the president said from the White House Sept. 9.
After months of encouraging people to choose vaccines by recording videos with viral internet stars, Biden made a more aggressive push that includes more federal vaccine requirements—including for schools in some states—and encouraging schools to adopt regular broad testing strategies.
The Education Department’s work, and its recent civil rights probes, are a part of that effort. In an Aug. 18 memo, the White House directed Cardona to use the agency’s “full legal authority” to help keep schools open.
An urgent call to keep schools open
Many organizations—including teachers’ unions, key Biden allies during his presidential campaign—have praised the administration’s approach.
On Monday, the National School Boards Association filed an amicus brief in a lawsuit over Arizona’s ban on school mask rules.
School leaders around the country have expressed urgency about responding to the pandemic, fearing for students’ academic progress if they face any more interruptions.
We have not felt like there is a bully pulpit. It’s more like 'How can I help?'
“I am worried about losing this academic year,” said Pedro Martinez, the superintendent of the San Antonio school district and chair of Chiefs for Change, a bipartisan network of state and district education leaders. “I am speaking for my families who are scared.”
Martinez has defied Texas state leaders to require vaccines for his district’s employees, busing 5,000 of them to get shots as soon as they were available to educators. He said he appreciated the Biden administration’s support for local schools on issues like masking, but he wants to see even more bold action and clarity about when vaccines will be approved for children under 12 and what steps local authorities can make to require them.
Martinez spoke to Education Week the day before Biden announced his COVID-19 plan. Chiefs for Change later praised that plan but called for a clear timeline for pediatric vaccines and assurances that there is a plan in place to deliver them quickly when they are approved. Martinez also called on Cardona to lean on his colleagues in other federal agencies to deliver on those goals.
“I’m concerned if we are too reactive, it’s going to come at a big price,” he said, noting some families are reluctant to send their unvaccinated children back to school.
And the pandemic is far from the only agenda item bidding for Cardona’s attention.
Among the administration’s most ambitious education proposals are a call for a new Title I grant program that would provide incentives for states to address gaps between rich and poor schools, and the expansion of universal pre-K and free community college through the “Build Back Better” plan. That plan is part of a $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation measure Congressional Democrats are fighting to pass.
Cardona talks up that plan even as he continues to focus on the virus.
And even as GOP governors in some states accuse him, and the administration at large, of being too aggressive, their colleagues elsewhere have invited him to their events.
Justice, in West Virginia, invited Cardona to appear virtually alongside state Superintendent of Schools Clayton Burch at an Aug. 27 press conference to promote a state initiative that requires each county to host a school vaccination clinic and provides financial incentives to the school that administers the most shots.
“It meant a lot to us for him to come in and recognize our in-school efforts. He really understood what we are struggling with in West Virginia and around the nation,” Burch said. “We have not felt like there is a bully pulpit. It’s more like ‘How can I help?’”
A version of this article appeared in the September 22, 2021 edition of Education Week as Pandemic Tests Limits of Cardona’s Collaborative Approach as Education Secretary