"We're here today, in the midst of one of the most challenging school years in American history," Miguel Cardona said in opening remarks to the Senate education committee on Wednesday. "For far too many of our students, this year has piled on crisis after crisis. As a parent, and as an educator, I have lived those challenges alongside millions of families."
Cardona is President Biden's pick to be the next U.S. secretary of education. On Wednesday, he appeared before the committee considering his nomination to answer questions about a range of issues, from reopening schools during the pandemic to student loan debt forgiveness and school policies for transgender students.
Cardona has served as Connecticut's education commissioner for the past year and a half, arguing forcefully that schools should reopen during the COVID-19 crisis to keep equity gaps from growing ever wider. Before that, he spent his entire career working for the public school system that helped raise him — as a fourth grade teacher, principal and assistant superintendent in the old factory town of Meriden, Conn.
Throughout his career, Cardona has been a fierce advocate for kids in low-income families, students with disabilities and English language learners. Cardona's parents moved from Puerto Rico, like many families in Meriden.
"There is a saying in Spanish: En la unión está la fuerza," Cardona told the Senate committee. "In unity there is strength."
The hearing was a test of whether Republicans would unify to back Cardona's nomination — or reject him, much as Democrats denounced his predecessor, Betsy DeVos, four years ago, forcing then-Vice President Mike Pence to cast the tie-breaking vote in her favor.
Indeed, Cardona received a relatively warm welcome from most of the lawmakers, with the committee's ranking Republican, Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, calling him "eminently qualified" for the job and encouraging colleagues to support his nomination.
For many on the Senate education committee, and much of the country, today's hearing was their first time meeting Cardona, who is new to the national stage. And the stakes are, perhaps, higher than they have ever been for a potential secretary of education.
Safe school reopening
Across the country, many large school districts, serving millions of children, remain closed, with fights between teachers, school leaders and families, over when and how to reopen, growing increasingly bitter. Meanwhile, President Biden is hoping Cardona can help him make good on his promise to get the majority of K-8 schools back in-session within his first 100 days.
On Biden's sense of urgency, there was bipartisan agreement. "We need schools to open safely and to stay open safely," Burr said.
When asked how his experience running Connecticut's reopening efforts would inform his national approach, Cardona underscored his reputation as a communicator.
"We relied very closely on the science. We partnered with our public health experts in the state and created a system of communication that was regular and intentional," Cardona told lawmakers.
Along those lines, he also committed, if confirmed, to working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to provide schools nationally with science-driven guidance, as well as increased surveillance testing for teachers and students, and urged that all educators, public and private, be prioritized for vaccination.
On the matter of whether schools should be expected to resume year-end standardized testing this spring — testing that DeVos initially paused at the beginning of the pandemic — Cardona suggested that, while he believes testing offers an important snapshot of student learning — or lost learning — he also understands that testing may not be realistic for many vulnerable kids who may still be learning at home with limited access to technology.
"I don't think we need to be bringing students in just to test them... I don't think that makes any sense," Cardona said. Still, he insisted, "If we don't assess where our students are and their level of performance, it's going to be difficult for us to provide targeted support and resource allocation in the manner that can best support the closing of the gaps that have been exacerbated due to this pandemic."
When asked for his position on the importance of additional, COVID-19-related funding for schools, Cardona said, "We really need to invest now, or we're going to pay later."
Sen. Mitt Romney, a Utah Republican, pushed back, saying President Biden's push to hire more teachers and reduce class sizes, while it would please the teachers unions, "will not result in the actual improvement in the scores and the performance of our young people."
Cardona responded by drawing on his own experience as a fourth-grade teacher and principal, saying, "I can tell you, when I have 15 students in front of me versus 28 students in front of me, I'm able to give more specialized attention to those 15 students."
Cardona's personal experience, as the son of parents from Puerto Rico, also featured in an exchange with Democrat Tina Smith, of Minnesota, when he said, "We really have to rethink how we're [serving English language learners], and understand the value and benefit of not only being bilingual in this country, but being bicultural."
School choice played only a minor role in the day's hearing. When asked by Sen. Tim Scott, a South Carolina Republican, about his position on choice, Cardona said, "I recognize that there are excellent examples of charter schools. I've seen many in Connecticut."
But Cardona also doubled down on the idea that "most parents want to send their children to their neighborhood school, so it's really important that we support all schools, including those neighborhood schools that are usually the first choice for families in that community."
"My passion really is to ensure quality schools, period," Cardona said. "Making sure that we're not supporting a system of winners and losers where, if you get into a school, you have an opportunity for success, but if you don't get into a school, your options lead to at least a belief that you can't make it."
Student loan debt forgiveness
While talk of school reopening dominated the hearing, one issue from the presidential campaign trail came up repeatedly: Whether President Biden would attempt to use the U.S. Education Department to unilaterally forgive federal student loan debts without working with Congress.
"I'm not eager to see the Biden administration pursue dangerous and foolhardy proposals to simply forgive student loans," said Burr. "The claims by some that [the] Higher Education Act allows this would stretch the law beyond recognition. I hope that you and the White House don't pursue that. Instead I invite you to work with Republicans and Democrats in the Senate to pass legislation that dramatically simplifies student loan repayment options."
Previously, Cardona has said that, while debt forgiveness would be a priority for him as secretary, he would try to achieve it by working collaboratively with Congress.
Cardona reiterated his support for debt forgiveness when questioned by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts Democrat, but he did not commit to acting unilaterally, even as Warren insisted that "the law is clear," that she believes the education secretary has the authority to immediately cancel $50,000 in federal student loan debt for every student borrower.
School policies for transgender students
In an unusually tense exchange, Sen. Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, asked Cardona if he supported a move by the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference (CIAC) to allow transgender students to participate in sports based on gender identity. In May 2020, the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) sent a letter to the CIAC saying the policy violates Title IX.
Paul called the Connecticut policy "bizarre" and "not very fair," saying Cardona's support for it would lead the vast majority of the country to wonder, "'What planet are you from?'"
"I think that it's critically important that the education systems and educators respect the rights of all students, including students who are transgender," Cardona argued. "And that they are afforded the opportunity that every other student has to participate in extracurricular activities."
Paul persisted: "You're OK, then, with boys competing with girls?"
"Respectfully senator, I think I answered the question," Cardona fired back. "I believe schools should offer the opportunity for students to engage in extracurricular activities, even if they're transgender."
Later in the hearing, speaking more broadly about protections for LGBTQ students, Cardona said, "It's non-negotiable to make sure that our learning environments are places that are free of discrimination and harrassment for all learners."
The issue was raised by several Republicans on the committee, including Romney and Sen. Roger Marshall of Kansas.
Community college, and career and technical education
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle voiced support for programs that give high school graduates college and career pathways that do not require an expensive, four-year degree.
At one point, Cardona referenced his own experience, studying automotive tech at a Meriden trade high school. He also reiterated his belief that community colleges "are critically important to not only rebuilding after the pandemic but really just our plan forward in education."
"What we need to do more is make those programs more available and more accessible earlier for our learners. For first-generation college students in particular, who might think about college and think, early on, 'That's not for me. I can't afford it,' we need to really remove those mental barriers that may exist generationally, and really give them access to that."
With the exception of the exchange with Paul, and related criticism from Romney and Marshall, Cardona seemed to enjoy bipartisan support, suggesting his subsequent Senate confirmation vote may not be the nail-biter it was for Betsy DeVos four years ago.
Eda Uzunlar is an intern on NPR's Education Desk.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
President Biden's nominee to be secretary of education took questions from lawmakers today. Miguel Cardona told the Senate education committee that he knows the stakes could not be higher for the next secretary.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MIGUEL CARDONA: We're here today in the midst of one of the most challenging school years in American history. For far too many of our students, this year has piled on crisis after crisis.
CHANG: This was Cardona's first big moment in the national spotlight. NPR's Cory Turner was watching and joins us now.
CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.
CHANG: Hey. So remind us real quick how Miguel Cardona got to this moment.
TURNER: Yes. So most recently, he was Connecticut's state education commissioner the past year and a half. Before that, he lived and worked as a public school educator in the town where he grew up. His parents moved from Puerto Rico to Meriden, Conn. It's an old factory town. Since starting there as a fourth-grade teacher, he has worked really at every level of education as a teacher, a principal, an assistant superintendent and, finally, as a state education leader.
CHANG: Wow. Well, with such a closely divided Senate, I'm curious, what was the reception like for Cardona?
TURNER: Well, first off, Cardona himself came in really pleading for unity. Here's what he told lawmakers in his opening remarks.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
CARDONA: As the saying in Spanish goes, (speaking Spanish). In unity, there is strength.
TURNER: And that set the tone for what was generally a pretty friendly and, at times, admiring hearing. The ranking Republican, Richard Burr, called Cardona eminently qualified. He encouraged his colleagues to support him.
There was really only one tense moment, Ailsa, when Kentucky Republican Rand Paul asked Cardona if he supported this Connecticut policy that allows transgender students to participate in sports based on their gender identity. Cardona said repeatedly that it would be his job to protect the rights of all students. Here's Senator Paul.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
RAND PAUL: So you don't have a problem then with boys running on the girls track meets - name it. You're OK then with boys competing with girls.
CARDONA: Respectfully, Senator, I think I answered the question. I believe schools should offer the opportunity for students to engage in extracurricular activities even if they're transgender. I think that's their right.
TURNER: It's also worth noting, Ailsa, that two other Republican senators, including Mitt Romney, also voiced frustration with Cardona's position on this issue.
CHANG: Well, President Biden has promised to get schools reopened in his first 100 days in office. What did Cardona have to say about that promise, his ability to ensure that promise?
TURNER: Yeah. Well, he started by pledging to work with the CDC to give school leaders really concrete, science-driven guidance on how to reopen safely. He also said he would help schools build capacity to do surveillance testing. Lots of places - they're not doing much if any of that. He said all teachers should be prioritized for vaccination. He's also said, you know, long before today that he believes closed schools are further widening longstanding educational equity gaps, which is one reason why he pushed hard in Connecticut for schools to reopen. In fact, if you look at that state, roughly half of the districts there were offering largely fully in-person school as of the third week of January.
CHANG: What about student loan debt? Biden has also signaled possible action on student loan debt. Did anything come up about forgiveness of federal student loans?
TURNER: Yeah, it did. And it all revolved, really, around how it could be done because there's debate whether the ed secretary has the authority to just forgive debts unilaterally or if it has to go through Congress. So Republicans made clear today this is not something they want to see done unilaterally. While Democrats led by Elizabeth Warren from Massachusetts - they pushed the other way, saying, you know, he has an obligation to do this. Cardona, for his part, said forgiveness is a priority but that he'd like to work with Congress.
CHANG: That's NPR's Cory Turner.
Thank you, Cory.
TURNER: You're welcome, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.