At his Senate confirmation hearing Wednesday, President Joe Biden’s secretary of education nominee, Miguel Cardona, was largely praised by Democratic and Republican lawmakers, who said they would work to confirm him quickly, as schools continue to flounder due to the challenges of COVID-19.
Cardona, who most recently served as the commissioner of education for the state of Connecticut, told the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee that he would work to safely reopen schools for in-person education.
“Our nation’s education challenges didn’t begin with the pandemic, but it has exacerbated inequities in our educational system. These inequities will endure, and prevent the potential of this great country, unless tackled head-on,” Cardona said during his opening remarks. ”And so it is our responsibility, and it would be my greatest privilege, if confirmed, to forge opportunity out of this crisis.”
When Cardona’s nomination was announced in December, he was cheered by both teachers unions and education reform groups, two factions that are often at odds. Before becoming Connecticut’s top education official, he spent a long career as a teacher, a principal — and one-time Connecticut principal of the year — and school district administrator, after becoming the first in his family to graduate from college.
As education commissioner in Connecticut, Cardona pushed schools to reopen in-person for students in fall 2020 without alienating teachers or families, highlighting his ability to find consensus while making difficult decisions. Biden has said that he wants to reopen most K-8 schools within the first 100 days of his presidency.
Cardona suggested that he did not believe that teachers and students would have to receive the COVID-19 vaccine in order to safely return to school, although he added that he thinks educators should be prioritized for vaccination.
“I recognize the frustration and distrust and fear that is out there,” he said, noting that he would emphasize contact tracing and surveillance to ensure safety when reopening schools. “We have examples throughout our country of schools that are able to reopen safely and do so while following mitigation strategies.”
As some groups argue that states should be freed from administering standardized tests this year, Cardona said at the hearing that he thinks such assessments could be a valuable tool right now, and that states should be given freedom to determine how results should be used, given that they are often tied to accountability measures. (States were issued standardized testing waivers last year.)
“I do feel if we don’t assess where our students are, their level of performance, it’s going to be difficult for us to provide targeted support,” said Cardona.
The issue of transgender athletes also received a significant amount of attention from Republican senators who tried to gauge Cardona’s thoughts on the idea of students competing on the team that aligns with their gender identity, rather than their birth sex — an issue that’s been the subject of attention in Cardona’s home state of Connecticut. After an anti-transgender group filed a complaint with the Department of Education under former Secretary Betsy DeVos, the department vowed to withhold aid from the state unless an athletic conference changed its policy and banned students from competing on the team that aligned with their gender identity.
Republican Sens. Rand Paul (Ky.), Mitt Romney (Utah) and Roger Marshall (Kan.) all expressed their displeasure with policies like the one in Connecticut: “A lot of us think that’s bizarre,” said Paul, on the idea of transgender athletes competing on the team that matches their gender; “Girls should be competing with girls and boys should be competing with boys,” said Romney; “I don’t think it’s American that a genotypical male is competing against girls,” said Marshall.
Cardona said he has had extensive conversations with both people who agree and disagree with the Republican senators and, while he understands the position against allowing trans students to compete as their gender identity, he does not think the law agrees.
“Discrimination based on gender is illegal,” said Cardona. “I recognize this is not easy and I respect the perspectives of those who feel differently.”
When asked about issues of school choice related to charter schools (which are publicly funded but not district run) and voucher programs (which provide public funding for students to attend private schools), Cardona also struck a conciliatory tone. He said he understands why families would want options, but “our neighborhood schools need to be schools where we want to send our children.” Voucher programs are a favorite among conservatives and were DeVos’ pet project.
Throughout his testimony, Cardona also said that he would push for more help for students — including in-school counselors and summer programming — as well as funding necessary to prevent teacher layoffs.
Senators’ reactions to Cardona differed vastly from those of his predecessor, Betsy DeVos, who was barely confirmed in 2017; then-Vice President Mike Pence had to step in to cast an unprecedented tie-breaking vote.
“After four years of a secretary of education who had no experience in education, I am thrilled to have a nominee before us who is a former elementary school teacher,” Senator Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said.
Republicans also struck a supportive and welcoming tone. Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) referred to Cardona’s “meteoric rise” from leader in Connecticut to likely cabinet secretary and said he was glad Cardona was tapped for the job.
In the lead up to the hearing, one of Cardona’s mentors, Braulio Santiago, who served as Cardona’s leadership coach when he first became a school principal, said he believed Cardona is going to be a very “visible” and collaborative leader.
“That’s going to be the challenge, to stay true to what he is with all these opinions,” said Santiago, a trainer for the education group New Leaders, which works with aspiring school administrators. “He is passionate about what he does, he believes in the children and also believes in the teachers.”