With the Senate’s confirmation Monday of Miguel Cardona to be Education secretary, the former public school teacher and principal from Connecticut takes office facing daunting pandemic-related and long-term challenges.
The 64-33 roll call vote came after he won bipartisan support at his committee vote last month. Now, his first priority will be to help advance President Joe Biden’s pledge to safely reopen schools that have been fully or partially shuttered for months — a major goal for the president’s first 100 days.
“I think the focus that they will have is clearly going to be on reopening elementary and secondary schools, because that has been such a political flashpoint around the country, and a return to economic normalcy requires it,” said Terry Hartle, a senior vice president at the American Council on Education, an advocacy organization for colleges and universities.
But Cardona will also need to contend with simmering debates over standardized testing and learning loss. And he’s expected to take on Trump-era rules and guidance regarding student debt obligations and limits on Title IX civil rights protections, among others, that the Biden administration and congressional Democrats are eager to undo.
School reopening and learning loss
As Connecticut’s education commissioner, Cardona sought to keep schools open where possible, allowing individual school districts to determine when they would open or close.
“There is no substitute for a classroom experience for our students,” he said at his confirmation hearing. “We have to do everything we can to safely reopen schools in a manner that gets the students back into their learning environment.”
Reopening schools is a bipartisan goal, but Democrats and Republicans have debated bitterly in recent weeks over how much federal aid is needed to achieve it. Nearly $170 billion in education aid — with about $128.5 billion for K-12 schools and $39.6 billion for colleges and universities — is included in the current budget reconciliation legislation that the House passed Saturday and sent to the Senate.
Republicans say much less aid is needed, pointing to billions of dollars from previous relief packages that remain unspent and powerful teachers’ unions that have resisted a return to the classroom.
“This is not a question of resources,” Virginia Rep. Bob Good said at the Education and Labor Committee’s markup of its segment of the bill. “In too many cases, it’s a question of school boards or school administrators or teachers being unwilling to open.”
Even when the pandemic eases and students are back in their classrooms, Cardona will need to address the long-term effects of accumulated learning loss, particularly among students who have struggled to access virtual lessons.
NWEA, a research institution that conducts academic assessments, found that in the fall of 2020, students in third to eighth grades performed similarly in reading to same-grade students in fall 2019 but about 5 to 10 percentile points lower in math. The study also identified some emerging differences between racial and ethnic groups but noted that it was too early to draw definitive conclusions and that especially vulnerable student groups were more likely to be missing from the data.
Kevin Welner, a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education, said Cardona will need to help U.S. students recover from more than just learning loss over the course of the deadly pandemic.
“I think the bigger issue that the administration will need to focus on is addressing all of the needs that children are going to be bringing back into school with them,” he said. “Have they lost family members? Have their parents lost their jobs? Have they lost their homes? Have they been suffering from hunger or food insecurity?”
Cardona will also need to oversee annual standardized testing during a historically fraught year for American schools.
The Education Department recently released guidance for schools on conducting tests amid the pandemic, inviting states to request waivers for accountability and school identification requirements for the 2021-22 school year. It also encouraged states to test more flexibly, through such changes as shortened assessments, remote administration or broader testing windows.
Cardona at his confirmation hearing emphasized the need for assessments of learning loss over the course of the pandemic.
“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 the manner that can best support the closing of the gaps,” he said.
But some groups have called for the department to waive testing requirements completely and instead allow local jurisdictions to implement their own assessments. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said the new testing guidance “misses a huge opportunity.”
“What that means is for a lot of kids, going back to school will be going back to school … to take tests,” Welner said.
Another priority for the beginning of Cardona’s tenure will be the reversal of various rules and guidance instituted during the Trump administration.
Biden has called for the return of the Obama-era borrower defense rule, which aimed to forgive debt held by individuals defrauded by certain for-profit institutions. During the Trump administration, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos introduced a new formula that makes it more difficult for defrauded students to access debt relief. Congress sought to overturn that rule using the Congressional Review Act, but President Donald Trump vetoed the legislation.
Democratic senators are also eager for Cardona to reverse what they see as harmful civil rights policies. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chair Patty Murray said changing Title IX rules related to the adjudication of sexual violence on college campuses should be a “key priority.”
“I was deeply disappointed by the way the Trump administration failed to defend the rights of all of our students to feel safe and to attend school without being discriminated against,” the Washington Democrat said at Cardona’s confirmation hearing.
Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., called for a similar reversal of DeVos guidance that suggested LGBTQ students were not expressly included in protections under Title IX and that schools maintaining separate sports teams based on biological sex are not discriminating against transgender students.
“Not only will we review these carefully, we will also be in discussion with the folks at the agency and our partners out in the field who have very strong perspectives on this,” Cardona responded.
But the federal rule-making process is complicated, and it could take months or years to institute new rules on borrower defense, Title IX and so-called gainful employment, another Obama-era rule designed to improve student outcomes at for-profit colleges.
“These things are going to take a long time,” said Hartle of the American Council on Education. “The only way you can get rid of a promulgated regulation is by promulgating a new regulation.”