"We're right here as we speak, within the midst of one of the vital difficult faculty years in American historical past," Miguel Cardona mentioned in opening remarks to the Senate schooling committee on Wednesday. "For a lot too a lot of our college students, this yr has piled on disaster after disaster. As a father or mother, and as an educator, I've lived these challenges alongside tens of millions of households."
Cardona is President Biden's decide to be the following U.S. secretary of schooling. On Wednesday, he appeared earlier than the committee contemplating his nomination to reply questions on a variety of points, from reopening faculties through the pandemic to pupil mortgage debt forgiveness and college insurance policies for transgender college students.
Cardona has served as Connecticut's schooling commissioner for the previous yr and a half, arguing forcefully that faculties ought to reopen through the COVID-19 disaster to maintain fairness gaps from rising ever wider. Earlier than that, he spent his whole profession working for the general public faculty system that helped increase him — as a fourth grade trainer, principal and assistant superintendent within the outdated manufacturing unit city of Meriden, Conn.
All through his profession, Cardona has been a fierce advocate for youths in low-income households, college students with disabilities and English language learners. Cardona's dad and mom moved from Puerto Rico, like many households in Meriden.
"There's a saying in Spanish: En la unión está la fuerza," Cardona instructed the Senate committee. "In unity there may be energy."
The listening to was a take a look at of whether or not Republicans would unify to again Cardona's nomination — or reject him, a lot as Democrats denounced his predecessor, Betsy DeVos, 4 years in the past, forcing then-Vice President Mike Pence to solid the tie-breaking vote in her favor.
Certainly, Cardona obtained a comparatively heat welcome from a lot of the lawmakers, with the committee's rating Republican, Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, calling him "eminently certified" for the job and inspiring colleagues to assist his nomination.
For a lot of on the Senate schooling committee, and far of the nation, as we speak's listening to was their first time assembly Cardona, who's new to the nationwide stage. And the stakes are, maybe, increased than they've ever been for a possible secretary of schooling.
Protected faculty reopening
Throughout the nation, many massive faculty districts, serving tens of millions of kids, stay closed, with fights between academics, faculty leaders and households, over when and tips on how to reopen, rising more and more bitter. In the meantime, President Biden is hoping Cardona may also help him make good on his promise to get nearly all of Ok-8 faculties again in-session inside his first 100 days.
On Biden's sense of urgency, there was bipartisan settlement. "We'd like faculties to open safely and to remain open safely," Burr mentioned.
When requested how his expertise operating Connecticut's reopening efforts would inform his nationwide method, Cardona underscored his popularity as a communicator.
"We relied very carefully on the science. We partnered with our public well being consultants within the state and created a system of communication that was common and intentional," Cardona instructed lawmakers.
Alongside these strains, he additionally dedicated, if confirmed, to working with the Facilities for Illness Management and Prevention to supply faculties nationally with science-driven steering, in addition to elevated surveillance testing for academics and college students, and urged that each one educators, private and non-private, be prioritized for vaccination.
On the matter of whether or not faculties needs to be anticipated to renew year-end standardized testing this spring — testing that DeVos initially paused at the start of the pandemic — Cardona prompt that, whereas he believes testing affords an vital snapshot of pupil studying — or misplaced studying — he additionally understands that testing will not be reasonable for a lot of weak youngsters who should still be studying at residence with restricted entry to expertise.
"I do not suppose we must be bringing college students in simply to check them... I do not suppose that makes any sense," Cardona mentioned. Nonetheless, he insisted, "If we do not assess the place our college students are and their stage of efficiency, it should be troublesome for us to supply focused assist and useful resource allocation within the method that may finest assist the closing of the gaps which were exacerbated attributable to this pandemic."
When requested for his place on the significance of extra, COVID-19-related funding for faculties, Cardona mentioned, "We actually want to speculate now, or we'll pay later."
Sen. Mitt Romney, a Utah Republican, pushed again, saying President Biden's push to rent extra academics and scale back class sizes, whereas it might please the academics unions, "is not going to outcome within the precise enchancment within the scores and the efficiency of our younger individuals."
Cardona responded by drawing on his personal expertise as a fourth-grade trainer and principal, saying, "I can let you know, when I've 15 college students in entrance of me versus 28 college students in entrance of me, I will give extra specialised consideration to these 15 college students."
Cardona's private expertise, because the son of fogeys from Puerto Rico, additionally featured in an alternate with Democrat Tina Smith, of Minnesota, when he mentioned, "We actually should rethink how we're [serving English language learners], and perceive the worth and advantage of not solely being bilingual on this nation, however being bicultural."
College selection performed solely a minor function within the day's listening to. When requested by Sen. Tim Scott, a South Carolina Republican, about his place on selection, Cardona mentioned, "I acknowledge that there are wonderful examples of constitution faculties. I've seen many in Connecticut."
However Cardona additionally doubled down on the concept "most dad and mom need to ship their kids to their neighborhood faculty, so it is actually vital that we assist all faculties, together with these neighborhood faculties which can be normally the primary selection for households in that group."
"My ardour actually is to make sure high quality faculties, interval," Cardona mentioned. "Ensuring that we're not supporting a system of winners and losers the place, when you get into a faculty, you've got a chance for fulfillment, but when you aren't getting into a faculty, your choices result in at the very least a perception that you could't make it."
Pupil mortgage debt forgiveness
Whereas speak of faculty reopening dominated the listening to, one subject from the presidential marketing campaign path got here up repeatedly: Whether or not President Biden would try to make use of the U.S. Schooling Division to unilaterally forgive federal pupil mortgage money owed with out working with Congress.
"I am not wanting to see the Biden administration pursue harmful and foolhardy proposals to easily forgive pupil loans," mentioned Burr. "The claims by some that [the] Increased Schooling Act permits this could stretch the regulation past recognition. I hope that you simply and the White Home do not pursue that. As a substitute I invite you to work with Republicans and Democrats within the Senate to move laws that dramatically simplifies pupil mortgage reimbursement choices."
Beforehand, Cardona has mentioned that, whereas debt forgiveness could be a precedence for him as secretary, he would attempt to obtain it by working collaboratively with Congress.
Cardona reiterated his assist for debt forgiveness when questioned by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts Democrat, however he didn't decide to appearing unilaterally, whilst Warren insisted that "the regulation is obvious," that she believes the schooling secretary has the authority to instantly cancel $50,000 in federal pupil mortgage debt for each pupil borrower.
College insurance policies for transgender college students
In an unusually tense alternate, Sen. Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, requested Cardona if he supported a transfer by the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Convention (CIAC) to permit transgender college students to take part in sports activities primarily based on gender id. In Might 2020, the Division of Schooling's Workplace for Civil Rights (OCR) despatched a letter to the CIAC saying the coverage violates Title IX.
Paul referred to as the Connecticut coverage "weird" and "not very reasonable," saying Cardona's assist for it might lead the overwhelming majority of the nation to surprise, "'What planet are you from?'"
"I feel that it is critically vital that the schooling programs and educators respect the rights of all college students, together with college students who're transgender," Cardona argued. "And that they're afforded the chance that each different pupil has to take part in extracurricular actions."
Paul endured: "You are OK, then, with boys competing with ladies?"
"Respectfully senator, I feel I answered the query," Cardona fired again. "I imagine faculties ought to provide the chance for college students to interact in extracurricular actions, even when they're transgender."
Later within the listening to, talking extra broadly about protections for LGBTQ college students, Cardona mentioned, "It is non-negotiable to ensure that our studying environments are locations which can be freed from discrimination and harrassment for all learners."
The problem was raised by a number of Republicans on the committee, together with Romney and Sen. Roger Marshall of Kansas.
Group faculty, and profession and technical schooling
Lawmakers on each side of the aisle voiced assist for applications that give highschool graduates faculty and profession pathways that don't require an costly, four-year diploma.
At one level, Cardona referenced his personal expertise, finding out automotive tech at a Meriden commerce highschool. He additionally reiterated his perception that group schools "are critically vital to not solely rebuilding after the pandemic however actually simply our plan ahead in schooling."
"What we have to do extra is make these applications extra accessible and extra accessible earlier for our learners. For first-generation faculty college students specifically, who would possibly take into consideration faculty and suppose, early on, 'That is not for me. I am unable to afford it,' we have to actually take away these psychological obstacles which will exist generationally, and actually give them entry to that."
Excluding the alternate with Paul, and associated criticism from Romney and Marshall, Cardona appeared to take pleasure in bipartisan assist, suggesting his subsequent Senate affirmation vote will not be the nail-biter it was for Betsy DeVos 4 years in the past.
Eda Uzunlar is an intern on NPR's Schooling Desk.