Miguel Cardona sails through Senate hearing amid reopening schools debate

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This article was published on Politico by Michael Stratford on February 3, 2021.

Miguel Cardona, President Joe Biden’s nominee for Education secretary, breezed through his Senate confirmation hearing on Wednesday, winning some bipartisan support even amid an increasingly contentious national political debate over reopening schools during the pandemic.

Cardona pledged to do “everything in our power to safely reopen schools,” vowing to take a collaborative approach to address the unprecedented upheaval of the nation’s educational system and combat the educational inequities exacerbated by the pandemic.

His hearing comes as Republicans increasingly blame the Biden administration and teachers unions for standing in the way of reopening schools. Senate GOP lawmakers this week are pushing a floor vote on an amendment aimed at blocking new federal Covid relief to schools that don’t return to in-person instruction.

Cardona avoided getting dragged into that debate during his hearing. He called for expanded Covid surveillance testing in schools and prioritized vaccines for teachers while making the case for boosting federal Covid relief for education.

“If we really want to recover,” he said, “we really need to invest now or we’re gonna pay later.”

But Cardona also sidestepped taking firm positions on some issues, such as whether he’ll require states to conduct annual academic assessments this year. And he struck a conciliatory tone on addressing hot-button issues in education beyond the pandemic, such as the role of charter schools and the rights of transgender students to participate in school athletics.

Cardona’s hearing stood in stark contrast to the theatrics of four years ago when Betsy DeVos’ uneven performance and clashes with senators during a prime-time hearing fed a groundswell of opposition to her nomination. DeVos became the first Cabinet nominee to be confirmed by the Senate on a tiebreaking vote from the vice president.

On Wednesday, Cardona avoided nearly any contentious exchanges during two-and-a-half-hours of questioning that was largely collegial from both sides of the aisle. His nomination appears to be on track for bipartisan support.

Sen. Richard Burr, the new top Republican on the Senate HELP committee, said that he planned to back Cardona’s nomination and that he was glad Biden picked him for the role. “I will encourage all of my colleagues on my side to support you as well and to move expeditiously to have you sworn in as the next secretary of education,” Burr told Cardona during the hearing.

Cardona also won plaudits during the hearing from Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) for his commitment to working with them on issues facing rural schools. Neither lawmaker indicated how she would vote on Cardona’s nomination, though both of them broke with Republicans in 2017 to oppose DeVos’ confirmation.

Mixed signals on federal testing waivers

The Trump administration waived federal academic testing requirements for all states last year at the beginning of the pandemic — but former Secretary Betsy DeVos warned before leaving office that doing so again would be a mistake, an area of rare agreement with many Democrats.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the chair of the Senate HELP Committee, and Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), the chair of the House education committee, have urged the Education Department to keep tests this year as a way to measure learning loss during the pandemic and be able to target resources to help students catch up. They’re concerned, as are civil rights groups, that it will be impossible to measure and assess achievement gaps in the nation’s schools without the data from annual exams.

But teachers unions and some state education officials, on the other hand, have said that it would be impractical for students to take standardized tests amid the disruption caused by the pandemic. New York and Michigan are among the states that have already requested a waiver of the requirements from the Education Department.

In response to questioning from Burr, who advocated for another one-year pause on testing, Cardona offered mixed signals on how he would approach the issue as secretary.

Cardona said he opposed a “one size fits all” approach to testing if students are out of the physical classroom because of Covid. But he did not say whether, as secretary of Education, he would grants waivers to relieve states of federal testing requirements in existing law.

He said only that states should be able to “weigh in on” how they implement testing this year as well as whether the results of those tests are used to hold schools accountable for their performance.

“I don’t think we need to be bringing students in just to test them on a standardized test. I don’t think that makes any sense,” Cardona said, while also raising the opposing argument. “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 and a resource allocation in a manner that can best support the closing of the gaps that have been exacerbated due to the pandemic.”

Reopening schools

Cardona vowed to provide schools with better guidance on reopening schools. “There is no substitute for a classroom experience for our students being in front of their teacher, there is no substitute for that,” he said.

Asked whether he agreed with the Fairfax, Va., teachers union demands on vaccinations, Cardona said that he believed that educators should be prioritized for vaccinations but didn’t say it should be a condition of reopening.

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky underscored that point as Cardona delivered his testimony. “There is increasing data to suggest that schools can safely reopen and that safe reopening does not suggest that teachers need to be vaccinated in order to reopen safely,” Walensky told reporters on Wednesday during a White House press briefing. “Vaccination of teachers is not a prerequisite for a safe reopening of schools,” she added.

Cardona also backed efforts — which several states are already exploring — to help students make up for lost classroom time by extending the school year or bulking up summer learning programs.

“We know that with proper support and funding, we can offer extended learning opportunities for students, extended summer school options to help students recover some of that loss,” he said. The Biden administration’s proposal for additional Covid relief — which includes $170 billion for education — is aimed at a “long-term recovery process” for the nation’s schools, he said.

Transgender rights

Cardona was pressed by Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and Roger Marshall (R-Kan.) over how he would approach the enforcement of civil rights protections for transgender students who want to participate in school sports.

The Trump administration moved to punish Connecticut over its policy that allowed students to participate in athletics in accordance with their gender identity. The Biden administration has signaled it won’t adopt that approach and will enforce civil rights protections for transgender students.

Paul said he thought it was “bizarre” and “unfair” for transgender students to participate in athletics according to their gender identity.

Cardona responded that he would “make sure that we’re following the civil rights of all students,” including transgender students.

“It’s the legal responsibility of schools to provide opportunities for students to participate in activities and this includes students who are transgender,” Cardona said. He added later in the hearing: “I recognize this is not easy, and I respect the perspective of people that feel differently.”

Charter schools

Cardona also walked a tightrope in responding to questions about charter schools, which were supported by the Obama administration but have fallen out of favor with some Democrats.

Some progressives have called for eliminating federal funding for charter schools, though Biden’s campaign platform called for nixing funding to for-profit charter schools and scrutinizing the entire sector more closely.

“I recognize there are excellent examples of charter schools. I’ve seen many in Connecticut,” Cardona said, citing a charter school in Stamford as an example. But he quickly added: “I know there are also phenomenal examples of neighborhood schools that are doing just as great work.”

Juan Perez Jr. contributed to this report.