Education secretary nominee Miguel Cardona on Wednesday pledged to prioritize reopening schools and address learning disparities exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic if confirmed.
Democrats and Republicans alike emphasized the need for students to return to the classroom at Cardona’s confirmation hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
The panel's top Republican, Sen. Richard M. Burr, R-N.C., and other Republicans praised Cardona, an indication that the nomination will likely go to the floor with bipartisan committee support.
"I expect by the end of this hearing I'll be able to support your nomination," Burr said. "And I will encourage all of my colleagues on my side to support you as well and to move as expeditiously to have you sworn in as the next secretary of education. I look forward to working with you."
Cardona, who has advocated keeping schools open as Connecticut’s education commissioner, promised to work towards President Joe Biden’s goal of reopening the majority of K-8 schools in his first 100 days.
“There is no substitute for a classroom experience for our students,” he said.
Democrats and Republicans agree that schools must reopen, but the amount of federal aid needed to do so has been a sticking point in negotiations on the next round of pandemic relief.
Biden has called for $170 billion to help schools and colleges reopen by shoring up personal protection equipment, testing and building ventilation, and reducing class sizes to allow for social distancing. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the top Democrat on the committee, emphasized the need for robust federal support for struggling schools.
“Our students and our schools are in crisis, and every day without an experienced leader at the Department of Education is a day we are losing precious ground,” she said .
A group of Senate Republicans have pushed for more targeted relief. Their plan calls for $20 billion to reopen schools. They argue private schools have managed to reopen without significant federal aid, and that powerful teachers unions have blocked a return to in-person learning.
Bipartisan negotiations are ongoing, but Democrats in the House and Senate are also preparing to pass Biden's larger plan without Republican support through the budget reconciliation process.
“Adults running schools across our country are failing to actually follow the science,” said Burr, citing a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report suggesting that in-person learning with proper safety measures is not a significant source of disease transmission. “That says to me that we should seriously be talking about reopening schools as quickly as possible.”
Members from both parties lauded Cardona, a former elementary school teacher and principal in Meriden, Conn. who became Connecticut’s education commissioner in 2019 — the first Latino to hold the job. He also served as an adjunct professor in a University of Connecticut education and leadership program, and he was a co-chairman of the Connecticut Legislative Achievement Gap Task Force, according to his official biography.
He said his own experience learning English as a student informs his desire to address longstanding inequities that have been exacerbated during the pandemic.
“These inequities will endure, and they will prevent the potential of this great country unless they are tackled head-on,” he said.
Student loans, teacher vaccines
Burr expressed admiration for Cardona’s “meteoric rise,” but also hinted at potential areas of conflict between Republicans and Biden’s Education Department. He noted support for moves by the Trump and Biden administrations to pause payments on federal student loans amid the current economic crisis, but cautioned against a more drastic policy change.
“I’m not eager to see the Biden administration pursue dangerous and foolhardy proposals to simply forgive student loans,” he said.
The Biden administration has called for up to $10,000 per borrower in student debt cancellation. Some progressive Democrats in Congress want to go even further, canceling up to $50,000 per borrower.
Burr also pressed Cardona on standardized testing, questioning whether test scores should be included this year in school accountability measures after the upheaval of virtual learning.
Cardona expressed openness to more flexible testing and allowing states leeway in determining their school accountability measures, but said testing was still needed to determine the extent of learning disparities.
He pledged to push for the vaccine prioritization of public and private teachers alike, assuaging Republican concerns about potentially unfair treatment of private school teachers in the vaccine rollout.
A testy moment arose when Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., repeatedly asked Cardona about transgender athletes, specifically whether it is fair to allow "boys in girls' track meets." Cardona promised to uphold the civil rights of all students — including transgender students who want to compete in school athletics.
Other senators asked Cardona about specific education policy priorities, including dyslexia screening, federal TRIO programs, and the needs of rural schools.