Your Education Road Map

Politics K-12®

ESSA. Congress. State chiefs. School spending. Elections. Education Week reporters keep watch on education policy and politics in the nation’s capital and in the states. Read more from this blog.


Senators Press Deputy Education Secretary Nominee on School Closures, Lost Learning Time

By Evie Blad — March 24, 2021 5 min read
San Diego Unified School District Superintendent Cindy Marten speaks at Lincoln High School in San Diego during the State of the District Address on Oct. 20, 2015.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Senators pressed President Joe Biden’s nominee for deputy U.S. Secretary of Education on issues ranging from school closures to how administrators should use a massive new infusion of federal K-12 aid at her confirmation hearing Wednesday.

If confirmed, San Diego Unified Superintendent Cindy Marten would take the number two role at the U.S. Department of Education as the agency pushes schools nationwide to expand in-person learning offerings during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a relatively low-drama confirmation hearing with the Senate education committee, some of the toughest questions Marten faced were about why her own school system is still offering largely remote education to all but a small number of students with special learning needs.

“I can’t understand why it would be that we wouldn’t be insisting that schools would be open,” Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, told Marten.

San Diego Unified is set to return to in-person learning April 12, Marten said. That plan came after she worked with local scientists to create plans to regularly test students and staff for COVID-19 and to improve ventilation and air filtration in schools.

The district also prioritized vaccinations for teachers and waited to meet California’s relatively strict metrics for school reopening that rely on the level of virus spread within the surrounding community.

“I do believe that we’ve learned that following the science, following the CDC guidance, we have a clear path forward,” Marten told senators.

She stressed the importance of local decision-making and said she can’t predict the path of the pandemic in coming months.

“This has been a tremendous challenge, and I know across the country people are grappling with the same issues we grappled with on the path to reopening,” Marten said.

Marten, a long-time educator and former elementary reading specialist, said her interest in education equity was sparked in part by her brother Charlie, an adult with developmental disabilities who was helped by the passage of what is now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

“This pandemic did not create the inequities in our education system, but it has highlighted just how much work remains to be done,” she said, echoing similar sentiments shared by U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona.

In response to questions about a range of education issues, Marten stressed the importance of “lifting up best practices” from local school districts.

She sidestepped questions from Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., about whether the federal government has the authority to unilaterally forgive student loan debt, and from Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, about which federal education regulations she would most want to rewrite or eliminate.

Senators raise concerns about ‘learning loss’

Several senators pressed Marten on how schools should address “learning loss,” or uncompleted coursework as a result of interrupted learning time.

Marten said San Diego plans enriching summer experiences for students that go beyond traditional summer school to help them feel motivated and engaged after a difficult year.

She agreed with Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., that schools should consider using funds provided through the newly passed American Rescue Plan for enhanced summer learning and extended learning time in 2021 and in future years.

“That’s the kind of forward thinking that I think is important … that we are able to have an immediate reaction as well as long-term planning,” Marten said.

Asked by Murkowski about pronounced differences in the academic achievement of Black and white students in a cluster of southeast San Diego schools, Marten noted success in narrowing those gaps in the district as a whole.

Addressing such issues, she said, requires a “relentless focus” on interrupting the conditions that worsen them. She pointed to the importance of teacher coaching that is centered on the needs of individual students.

“When you learn how to teach one, you learn how to teach many more from that,” she said.

Several senators also urged Marten to address declining college interest among students of color during the pandemic, evidenced by drops in federal student loan applications, and she agreed the trend was concerning.

The nominee draws both praise and criticism

Under Marten’s leadership, the San Diego district has won praise for narrowing achievement disparities between white students and students of color and for raising graduation rates, including from the Learning Policy Institute, an organization founded by Linda Darling-Hammond, the president of the California state board of education who led Biden’s education transition team.

It’s clear Marten would be “a champion for students,” said committee chairwoman Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, who urged a speedy confirmation.

“Especially those [students] who have so sorely needed a champion at the department these last four years including students of color, students from families with low incomes, students with disabilities, women, LGBTQ students, English-learners, and so many others.”

Ranking member Sen. Richard Burr, R-North Carolina, said he was inclined to support Marten’s nomination. But he noted some complaints from local organizations and advocacy groups about her work, and he said those concerns would have gotten much more attention from his Democratic colleagues if she’d been nominated by a Republican president.

“I’m glad to see that my Democratic friends have abandoned their guilty-upon-nomination stance that they’ve taken the last four years,” Burr said.

Among the concerns he highlighted: The San Diego chapter of the NAACP has criticized San Diego for disciplining Black students at higher rates than their peers, an issue in school systems across the country. The local chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists has flagged concerns about transparency in San Diego Schools, Burr noted, and the district has faced investigations for its handling of sexual harassment complaints.

“Despite any reservations, I believe your passion for education and for kids to learn in the classroom will enable you to succeed,” Burr told Marten.

Marten’s nomination also faced some resistance from charter school advocates who were concerned about her involvement on a California task force that proposed changes to the state’s charter school authorizing law.

Marten said her own son had attended a charter school. She noted how San Diego had approved dozens of charters since 1993 and included them in bond campaigns to support facilities.

While the education system should create neighborhood public schools that serve as “the best first choice,” Marten said families should have options.

“At the end of the day, I believe that every child deserves to be in an environment that’s right for them and that parents deserve choices,” she said.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Well-Being Webinar
Attend to the Whole Child: Non-Academic Factors within MTSS
Learn strategies for proactively identifying and addressing non-academic barriers to student success within an MTSS framework.
Content provided by Renaissance
Classroom Technology K-12 Essentials Forum How to Teach Digital & Media Literacy in the Age of AI
Join this free event to dig into crucial questions about how to help students build a foundation of digital literacy.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Federal AFT's Randi Weingarten on Kamala Harris: 'She Has a Record of Fighting for Us'
The union head's call to support Kamala Harris is one sign of Democratic support coalescing around the vice president.
5 min read
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, speaks at the organization's annual conference in Houston on July 22, 2024.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, speaks at the organization's biennial conference in Houston on July 22, 2024. She called on union members to support Vice President Kamala Harris the day after President Joe Biden ended his reelection campaign.
via AFT Livestream
Federal Biden Drops Out of Race and Endorses Kamala Harris to Lead the Democratic Ticket
The president's endorsement of Harris makes the vice president the most likely nominee for the Democrats.
3 min read
President Joe Biden speaks at a news conference July 11, 2024, on the final day of the NATO summit in Washington.
President Joe Biden speaks at a news conference July 11, 2024, on the final day of the NATO summit in Washington. He announced Sunday that he was dropping out of the 2024 presidential race and endorsing Vice President Kamala Harris as his replacement for the Democratic nomination.
Jacquelyn Martin/AP
Federal What We Know About Kamala Harris’ Education Record
Harris is the frontrunner for the top of the ticket. A look at her record on K-12, along with those of other Democratic contenders.
8 min read
Vice President Kamala Harris embraces President Joe Biden after a speech on healthcare in Raleigh, N.C., March. 26, 2024. President Joe Biden dropped out of the 2024 race for the White House on Sunday, July 21, ending his bid for reelection following a disastrous debate with Donald Trump that raised doubts about his fitness for office just four months before the election.
Vice President Kamala Harris embraces President Joe Biden after a speech on health care in Raleigh, N.C., on March 26, 2024. Biden on Sunday announced he wouldn't run for reelection and endorsed Harris as his replacement.
Matt Kelley/AP
Federal Opinion The Great Project 2025 Freakout
There's nothing especially scary in the Heritage Foundation's education agenda—nor is it a reliable gauge of another Trump administration.
6 min read
Man lurking behind the American flag, suspicion concept.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty