When Miguel Cardona appears Wednesday for his confirmation hearing to become education secretary, he’ll do so with the country’s public school system in tumult. Half of children have been locked out of classrooms since last March due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, divisions are deepening between city and teachers union officials over how and when to reopen for in-person learning, and increasingly skeptical parents are watching as their children fall behind academically, socially and emotionally.
If that weren’t enough, Cardona is set to step into the role of the nation’s top education official at a time when the coronavirus is surging and new, more contagious variants are re-shuttering schools across Europe, a bungled vaccine rollout is delaying distribution to school staff and prospects in Congress for a major new round of federal relief for schools are uncertain.
“The secretary will be, as he well knows, walking into a situation where many millions of students are significantly more behind than where they were a year ago in terms of their path to college and career, are struggling significantly more with mental and social and emotional health issues as a result of the pandemic, and are facing, on top of all of that, housing and food insecurities at much higher numbers than they were before,” says Mike Magee, CEO of Chiefs for Change, an education organization that represents state and district superintendents that oversee more than 7 million children.
“It’s a catastrophic situation,” he says. “It’s an immense leadership challenge.”
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His top priority will be helping President Joe Biden meet his goal of reopening the majority of elementary and middle schools for in-person learning in the first 100 days of his administration.
When it comes to K-12 education, the federal government plays a minimized role, with the bulk of the funding responsibilities and decision-making power belonging to state and local governments. In that regard, Cardona won’t have the authority to, for example, demand that schools reopen in Chicago or Washington, D.C. – two cities where classrooms remain closed to in-person learning as educators and administrators wrestle over safety standards.
But with a $1.9 trillion economic stimulus package on the line and a president who wants to triple Title I funding for poor students and supercharge federal investment for students with disabilities, Cardona stands to oversee a potentially historic investment in K-12 education. Given the public school system’s state of paralysis and the growing demands to steer more resources to the country’s most vulnerable students and give parents an elevated role, Cardona also stands to be the most consequential education secretary in history.
If confirmed after his hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee, his entree into the role of education secretary wouldn’t be too far removed from that of Arne Duncan’s, who served in that position for seven years under the Obama administration. Duncan came into the role during the Great Recession and was able to parlay part of the 2009 economic stimulus funding for K-12 education into the $3.5 billion Race to the Top competitive grant program. That program, which doled out funding to states that promised to adopt new education policies, including more rigorous standards and tests, new teacher evaluations and pay scales tied in part to student test scores, charter school-friendly environments and more, dramatically changed the state of K-12 education in the U.S.
The Biden administration hasn’t shown any interest in replicating a Race to the Top-type of program through the newest push for COVID-19 relief – though there’s sure to be at least some room for carrots and sticks.
“The Biden folks have really pushed hard for increasing funds for Title I,” says Deborah Delisle, president and CEO of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former assistant secretary of elementary and secondary education during the Obama administration, offering one example for how Cardona could drive policy. “It’s not just what you do with those funds, but putting out guidance to ensure those funds are used to help with learning loss or hiring additional teachers.”
Despite stepping into a situation that’s spiraling out of control, some posit that Cardona, with his extensive background in K-12 education, may be able to harness the tumult to force some significant policy shifts.
“I think we all have to do our absolute best to turn this into a positive in terms of the long term,” Magee says. “We have real opportunities to do a much better job for how we design high schools to support students and how we think about the daily schedule of a student or a calendar year.”
“And shame on us if we don’t emerge from this with every student in America connected to broadband,” he adds. “If we’re able to do that, that will matter immensely to the next generation of students.”
To be sure, Cardona’s to-do list is ever-growing.
Congressional Democrats have their eyes set on closing achievement gaps while Republicans are focused on expanding education choices for parents.
Civil rights groups have been pining to reinstate a slew of Obama-era regulations overturned by the Trump administration, including guidance aimed at reducing discipline of Black and Latino students and students with disabilities and protecting the rights of transgender students to use the bathroom of their choice. And as part of the national reckoning over systemic racism, many are also looking for Cardona to address the presence of police in schools, as well as various ways to better integrate schools and funnel resources to communities that have been most severely affected by redlining – the practice of deeming areas or neighborhoods ineligible for services, frequently based on race.
State school chiefs, superintendents and principals are looking for him to grant waivers from the annual testing and accountability requirements of the federal K-12 law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, given how intense the learning loss has been as a result of the ongoing pandemic.
Meanwhile, teachers unions, whose members played a major role in Biden’s election, plan to cash in on his pledge to boost teacher salaries, provide more support staff in the form of counselors, nurses and librarians and elevate the role of labor unions.
Other items on Cardona’s list include closing the digital divide for the estimated 12 million to 16 million children who lack reliable internet access and devices to learn remotely, directing federal funding to schools for infrastructure costs and establishing a universal early education system.
“The overwhelming part is how he sets up what those priorities are,” Delisle says. “He’s going to really have to focus on – strategically and thoughtfully – on those first 100 days.”
“You only get one chance to make your first impression and you don’t get that chance again,” she says. “How Miguel responds to the learning loss and pandemic and gets kids back in schools and works with teachers unions and other groups who are concerned about health and safety issues, and parents with special needs students – all of that will be overwhelming, but he needs to set priorities.”
Cardona’s nomination has yet to raise any red flags, and none of the Senate committee’s members have taken issue with his resume.
He’s a newcomer to the national education scene, but he checks a lot of boxes having served as a teacher, principal, district superintendent and most recently as the head of Connecticut’s Education Department.
Notably, he’s spent the entirety of his education career in Connecticut – and only the last year and a half in the state’s top post – which has allowed him to, for the most part, sidestep the education policy wars of the last decade. He’s not afraid to push back against teachers unions, but, as a former member of one himself, he’s rarely had to. And while he doesn’t go out of his way to support charter schools, he’s also not on a warpath against them.
“He’s been able to stay under the radar,” Delisle says. “I’m sure there are some people who were like, ‘Miguel who?’ But I think that will serve him well that he doesn’t have a high profile.”
Despite the current hyper-partisan atmosphere, his nomination was received warmly by every national education organization, from teachers unions to private school choice advocates to civil rights groups – a sharp contrast to the warring statements they’ve grown accustomed to lobbing over the last four years.
While his confirmation process will likely be drama-free – or at least less dramatic than his predecessor’s – the formal vote on the Senate floor could get held hostage by the ongoing impeachment trial and COVID-19 negotiations. No matter, he’s said to be already meeting with the major players in Washington and acquainting himself with White House and Education Department staff.
“He’s going to be dealing with a lot of issues,” Delisle says. “But I do think it’s really great that we’re settling on a secretary who has an extensive background in education.”