“We need to invest now, or we’re going to pay later,” Dr. Miguel Cardona told members of the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, when asked about funding safe school reopening in a hearing yesterday on his confirmation as U.S. Secretary of Education.
“Our rollout strategy should include the prioritization of educators for vaccination and surveillance testing of schools,” he stressed.
The nation’s educators listened closely to the words of Connecticut’s education commissioner, who has been tapped by President Biden to head the U.S. Department of Education.
Acknowledging that there is no substitute for having teachers in front of students in the classroom, Cardona nevertheless cautioned that schools must reopen safely and said that federal funding will be critical to meeting that goal.
Leading in a time of crisis
Addressing the entire committee, Cardona emphasized that the burden of the pandemic on educators, students, and parents “has been tremendous,” and added, “While our nation’s inequities did not start with the pandemic, it would be my greatest privilege to forge opportunity out of this crisis. We will work to reopen schools safely, we will ensure that our dedicated teachers are recognized for their great contributions to this country, and we will address inequities head-on. Investing in public education changes lives and saves lives. I’ve seen it and lived it. In unity, there is strength. We gain strength when we come together, and, like our schools, create a culture of community.”
Navigating school reopening in the midst of a pandemic, from establishing safety protocols to remedying systemic barriers and learning loss, was a key topic of the confirmation hearing. On these issues, Cardona said that while “students have shown resilience and have adapted in ways that are inspiring,” the reality of interrupted learning must be addressed “with proper support and funding, like extended summer school, high-quality materials, strong remote access, and the ability to safely reopen schools.”
Cardona spoke about the importance of clear federal guidelines for school across the nation to reopen safely, as well as close collaboration with public health officials and educators.
“My experience around school reopening in Connecticut was having clear communication about mitigation strategies and communication with health officials about virus and its spread. Through these last ten months, I listened to parents, students, and educators, relied very closely on the science, and created a system of communication that was regular and intentional. I would bring that same mentality to this office.”
Adequately funding school reopening will be paramount, he said.
Addressing skepticism from some lawmakers that adding teachers and reducing class sizes will not necessarily correlate with better student performance under President Biden’s $130 billion COVID relief package for schools, Cardona reached back to his own experience as a public school teacher. “While
class size is not the most important indicator of student performance, I can tell you as an educator, I can give more specialized attention with 15 students in front of me as opposed to 28 students.”
A former Meriden teacher and administrator, Cardona addressed questions from the committee about topics including standardized testing, equity, social emotional support for students and teachers, bridging the digital divide, and more. Many of his responses were informed by his own background as an immigrant, English learner, and classroom teacher and the way those experiences have shaped his perspectives on education.
The reception from committee members in both parties was overwhelmingly positive.
One of our own
Calling this “one of the proudest and most exciting of my days in the Senate,” Senator Richard Blumenthal described Cardona as “a proud son of Meriden and our public education system in Connecticut, and a passionate advocate for public schools” whose “entire career is living proof of what someone can achieve regardless of their first language.” Cardona, he said, “is extraordinarily committed to learning and teaching, is dedicated with every fiber of his being to learning and teaching, and knows the importance of students returning to school, but doing it safely.” He added, “He will restore integrity and professionalism at the top levels, and Connecticut is solidly behind him. We will miss him, but Connecticut’s pride will be mirrored by his accomplishments as secretary of education.”
“While today the whole country is learning about Miguel Cardona’s meteoric rise,” Senator Chris Murphy said Connecticut knows his track record, which includes spending hundreds of dollars out of his own pocket as a classroom teacher, tackling teacher diversity, and championing restorative justice.
“He has a servant’s heart, an immovable moral compass, and a unique talent for consensus building,” Murphy said.
Social emotional support
As a growing number of Americans experience anxiety and depression related to COVID, Cardona was asked how he would prioritize mental health for students.
“If we’re not thinking of reopening with mental health as a core, then we’re missing an opportunity. Let’s not lose this opportunity to make sure the mental health of students is a priority, with wraparound services and supports that families need. I look forward to moving this along in our country, and I’m pleased that President Biden’s funding plan includes school counselors. Students’ bandwidth diminishes if they’re worried about what’s happening at home.”
Crucially, he added, “Educators have also been through trauma. They take on the stressors our students are experiencing, so it’s critically important that we look at our educators’ needs as well.”
When asked whether he would recommend pausing federal standardized testing requirements as the nation grapples with the pandemic, Cardona said that while he believes standardized tests can be useful in determining how federal resources are allocated, he does not favor a one-size-fits-all approach to testing and does not feel it’s necessary to bring students in for standardized tests when they are learning remotely.
Strong public schools
In sharp contrast to former President Donald Trump and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, whose agenda centered on school privatization, the current administration is focused on neighborhood public schools.
Responding to lawmakers’ questions about whether he supports private and charter schools, Cardona responded, “I recognize that there are excellent examples of charter schools, but neighborhood schools are doing just as well. I am not supporting a system of winners and losers. I am a passionate proponent of making sure all schools are quality schools. Our neighborhood public schools cannot be a poor alternative. We must invest in them, because they are the bedrock of our communities and the first choice for most families. They need to be schools where we want to send our children. I feel pretty strongly about that.”
Cardona stressed that not only is he a product of Connecticut schools, but his children are as well.
Having grown up an English learner, Cardona questioned the practice of stripping out students’ first language in the early grades only to add it back in as a high school course.” He told the committee, “We should be encouraging bilingualism, and also biculturalism. We honor our students’ bilingualism by honoring their culture. As an educator, when you do that, you build community, and students feel more engaged. We have to rethink how we do this and understand the benefit.”
He also advocated for high expectations for all learners and building capacity for educators to make sure school disciplinary issues are addressed in a way that is fair and intentional. In Meriden, where he worked as a principal and assistant superintendent, he said building a strong sense of community and engaging students in the conversation helped reduce school suspensions, expulsions, and other exclusionary measures that disproportionately affect children of color.
While his own firsthand experience has been in an urban setting, he told the committee he recognizes the challenges that rural communities face and is committed to looking at those issues more closely. In particular, he said, connectivity and the resulting lack of access to high-quality learning materials during remote instruction has plagued rural communities.
“English learners, rural learners, they all need a seat at the table, because their needs should not be an afterthought.”
In response to pointed questions about transgender students, Cardona stressed, “It is non-negotiable that our learning environment is not only physically safe but also free of harassment and discrimination, including for our LGBTQ students. The Supreme Court ruled that discrimination based on gender is not legal, and I am committed to working with you and others to provide opportunities for all students.”
Committee Chair Patty Murray urged the committee to act swiftly to advance and confirm Cardona as secretary of education, noting that 37 letters of recommendation from a wide range of groups were submitted on his behalf, attesting to his qualifications.
“Our schools and students are in crisis,” she said.
Lauding Cardona’s experience as a public school teacher, she added, “After four years of a secretary of education with no experience in public education, I know how valuable that classroom experience is.”