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Six Things to Watch for at Miguel Cardona’s Confirmation Hearing for Education Secretary

By Evie Blad — February 01, 2021 7 min read
Miguel Cardona, President-elect Joe Biden's nominee for Secretary of Education, speaks after being introduced at The Queen Theater in Wilmington, Del., on Dec. 23, 2020.
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Miguel Cardona faces the Senate’s education committee Wednesday as it considers his confirmation to become U.S. secretary of education, with members sure to ask about a host of education issues front and center in the national policy debate.

After President Joe Biden named Cardona, who is currently Connecticut’s education commissioner, as his pick, education organizations across the ideological spectrum praised the choice. But that doesn’t mean Cardona won’t have to confront some tough questions.

The nation’s schools are in crisis as they continue to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic. And arguments over issues like school choice, students’ rights, and how to teach American history continue to punctuate the larger K-12 education discussion. Here are six areas of questioning he is likely to face.

How should the Education Department protect student civil rights?

Cardona’s predecessor, former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, had an unusually divisive confirmation process that ended when then-Vice President Mike Pence broke a tie in the Senate to confirm her to the role.

Among the toughest questions she faced dealt with protecting students’ rights in areas ranging from sexual orientation and gender identity to access to special education services.

Biden’s education platform promised a U-turn on the Trump administration’s stance toward students’ civil rights, promising to reinstate several Obama-era directives Trump rescinded.

Those include controversial civil rights guidance on racial disparities in school discipline, which the Trump administration rescinded at the recommendation of its school safety commission. Biden has already taken action on the rights of transgender students under Title IX, an issue state legislatures have also taken up around the country. Another issue? A rule DeVos issued on how schools should respond to claims of sexual assault and harassment, which some survivors’ advocates have criticized.

Lawmakers have very different ideas about how to interpret and enforce federal law on these issues. Some Democrats believe federal officials should be more aggressive in protecting students’ rights. And some Republicans are concerned about federal overreach.

In addition, parents and advocacy groups have raised concerns that some schools are not meeting their legal obligations to students with disabilities during the pandemic, a concern at the center of several open federal investigations. Cardona will likely face questions about ensuring students’ learning plans are met and that they receive compensatory services as they return to in-person learning.

When and how should schools reopen?

As Connecticut’s education commissioner, Cardona has strongly encouraged schools to open for in-person learning, delivering his message through guidance, online discussions, and short videos on the benefits of being in the classroom. He’s stopped short of requiring schools to open their buildings or threatening the funding of those that don’t.

Biden has pledged to reopen a majority of K-8 schools within the first 100 days of his administration. His plan calls for Congress to pass a new COVID-19 relief package that includes $130 billion in additional aid for K-12 schools, which they could use for a variety of purposes including protective equipment and improvements to ventilation systems that could help mitigate transmission risks. He has also called for more-specific federal guidance about when and how schools should open, more-centralized vaccine and testing strategies, and new data on how the pandemic is affecting students.

The answer to the question of whether Biden’s goal is too cautious or too ambitious is in the eye of the beholder. As Education Week has reported, some public health officials have said it’s safe for schools to open with appropriate precautions. But some teachers have said their schools don’t have the resources or plans to keep them safe, and they’ve expressed concerns about emerging, more-contagious variants of the virus.

Senators will likely ask Cardona some of the questions that have animated local debates in cities like Chicago: Exactly how much federal aid is necessary to open buildings? How will the administration expand virus testing in schools? Should teachers be asked to return to school before they’ve been fully vaccinated?

Should states be allowed to cancel student tests this spring?

Among the first decisions the new education secretary will likely make is how to handle federally mandated state tests this spring.

After initially resisting, DeVos gave states full waivers from that requirement in 2020 as schools around the country rapidly closed in the early months of the pandemic.

Some state schools chiefs have asked for similar waivers this year. Officials in New York and Michigan have indicated they want to fully cancel their tests, while state schools chiefs elsewhere have asked the Biden administration for flexibility in areas like how they report and use those test results. Meanwhile, leaders in states like Arkansas and Texas have said they plan to continue student tests this year.

The issue doesn’t cut neatly along traditional partisan boundaries. Some teachers and progressive education groups have argued that administering tests is unreasonable in such an unprecedented time. But some civil rights groups and key Democratic lawmakers, including education committee chairwoman Sen. Patty Murray of Washington and House education committee chairman Rep. Bobby Scott, a Virginia Democrat, have said such tests are necessary to measure how schools are serving vulnerable populations during the pandemic.

Beyond state tests, Murray has raised concerns about how schools are assessing “learning loss” to determine which students will need additional supports to make up for interrupted learning time.

Under Cardona’s leadership, the Connecticut education department said in November it still planned to require state tests, but it planned to take a break from using scores for things like identifying schools for improvement.

Does Cardona support private school choice and charter schools?

DeVos centered her agenda on a federal push for school choice, campaigning unsuccessfully for federal tax-credit scholarships students could use to attend private schools.

Some Republican lawmakers have suggested students should be able to use public funds for private school scholarships if their public schools remain in remote learning. And states around the country are considering related private school choice bills.

The issue animated the opposition to DeVos. In response, Biden has pledged to focus his attention on “neighborhood public schools” that most students attend. And, while Democrats have long supported charter schools, Biden has said “for-profit” charters need more accountability.

The federal government plays a limited role in the issue, but Cardona could help shape priorities and budget requests for the federal charter school fund, and he could emphasize or downplay charter schools in discretionary grant priorities.

Cardona himself hasn’t voiced strong public opinions about charter schools, but Senators are likely to ask him about several facets of the school choice debate.

What should schools teach in history class?

The federal government is not supposed to dictate what schools teach, but that reality hasn’t slowed intense arguments over how they should address topics like slavery, race, and white supremacy.

The issue picked up steam after the New York Times published its 2019 1619 Project, a report reexamining the role of slavery in the nation’s history. After nationwide demonstrations over racial justice this summer, Trump campaigned on a promise to require schools to teach “American exceptionalism,” and he founded a 1776 Commission on American history to “promote patriotic education.”

On his first day in office, Biden broke up that commission and rescinded a recent report it published that says schools should “reject any curriculum that promotes one-sided partisan opinions, activist propaganda, or factional ideologies that demean America’s heritage, dishonor our heroes, or deny our principles.”

“Unity and healing must begin with understanding and truth, not ignorance and lies,” Biden said as he signed an order to disband the 1776 Commission.

Cardona hasn’t spoken directly on the issue but, when Connecticut adopted a requirement for high schools to offer African-American, Black, Puerto Rican, and Latino studies starting in 2022, he praised the shift, saying, “The fact is that more inclusive, culturally relevant content in classrooms leads to greater student engagement and better outcomes for all.”

How much money do schools need?

Even before the pandemic, Biden campaigned on a promise to dramatically increase federal funding for education. He pledged to triple Title I funding for disadvantaged students and to “fully fund” the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act within 10 years.

While groups like teachers’ unions and special education advocates applauded those commitments, some education wonks questioned an emphasis on resources that didn’t include discussions of school improvement strategies.

Senators may ask Cardona about why schools need more resources, how they should be used, and how he will help fulfill Biden’s promises.

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