Where Biden’s Education Secretary Stands on Issues Like Reopening Schools, Student Debt

President-elect Joe Biden has picked Connecticut education commissioner Miguel Cardona to lead the Department of Education in his administration—a high-profile post that will be tasked with significant policies on K-12 and higher education if he wins Senate confirmation.

Some of the top education issues facing the incoming administration will include skyrocketing student debt, reopening schools that have been closed for months because of the coronavirus pandemic, addressing Title IX sexual assault cases and mending relationships with influential teachers unions.

Here’s where Cardona stands on those issues and what Biden has said.

Reopening Schools During Pandemic

Cardona has been an advocate of in-person learning for K-12 students while adopting safety measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, even as cases continue to surge around the country.

Cardona and other education officials have voiced concerns about students falling behind in remote learning and its other possible impacts, including the hardships it can create for working parents and access to free school lunches.

The pandemic has killed more than 320,000 people in the United States and forced massive shutdowns and business closures. Cases continue to soar throughout the nation, which has forced education leaders to consider whether it is safe for schools to be open.

Information also has been evolving about COVID-19’s impact on younger people—whether they could suffer long-term effects from the disease and how likely it is that they could spread the virus if they get it.

Cardona penned a column for The Connecticut Mirror last month urging the safe reopening of schools.

“We all know remote learning will never replace the classroom experience. We also know that the health and safety of our students, staff, and their families must be the primary consideration when making decisions about school operations,” he wrote. “The two are not mutually exclusive.”

He’s urged schools in Connecticut to work with the state health department to craft plans.

“We know we cannot control the actions of everyone in the community, but if we do our part following the guidance of our health experts, we can increase the chances of the students learning in the classroom where the most effective learning takes place,” he wrote.

Student Debt

Americans owe at least $1.7 trillion in student loans, spread out over more than 44.7 million people, according to the Federal Reserve.

“We know that in the 21st century 12 years of school isn’t enough, and that young people are getting crushed by the burden of student debt,” Biden told reporters Wednesday.

The president-elect has done an aggressive pitch for making higher education more affordable, including free community college for all and free tuition for students at public colleges and universities whose families make less than $125,000. He’s also promoting an income-based repayment plan for student loans and immediate forgiveness of up to $10,000 for those with student debt.

Those efforts will shine a spotlight on whoever comes in to helm Biden’s Education Department. A full student loan forgiveness effort has been championed by progressives in the Democratic Party but has met forceful resistance from Republicans. Biden’s proposal comes out between the two.

Cardona didn’t directly address student debt during his public remarks on Wednesday, but his address focused heavily on equity in education.

“For far too long, we’ve let college become inaccessible to too many Americans for reasons that have nothing to do with their aptitude or their aspirations and everything to do with cost burdens and, unfortunately, an internalized culture of low expectations,” he said.

Teachers Unions

In an address last year, Biden promised members of the National Education Association (NEA), the nation’s largest teachers union, that he would pick a teacher to lead the Department of Education—a direct pivot from Trump’s secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, a wealthy Republican and school choice advocate whose college background is in business rather than education.

A former fourth-grade public school teacher and principal, Cardona meets Biden’s promise.

“He knows what our students, teachers and schools need to be successful,” Vice President-elect Kamala Harris told reporters Wednesday. “He has dedicated his career to fighting for our children, and he has a deep belief in the power of a world-class education to help every child, everywhere, overcome barriers of race, gender or income to reach their God-given potential.”

Teachers unions, like the NEA, have long been aligned more closely with Democratic politicians.

NEA President Becky Pringle praised Cardona’s nomination. In a statement, she said, “As a former public-school teacher, he understands what’s at stake for students and promises to respect the voice of educators as we work to safely reopen school buildings, colleges, and university campuses, while also forging a path to transform public education into a racially and socially just and equitable system that is designed to prepare every student to succeed in a diverse and interdependent world.”

Title IX

Notably, DeVos worked to roll back the Obama administration’s policies that sought to protect sexual assault victims through the Title IX civil rights law, which ensures gender equality in schools. DeVos’ approach instead focused on protecting those who may be wrongly accused.

During Wednesday’s remarks, Biden, who helped lead the Obama-era effort, made a point to highlight concerns about Title IX and the need to address campus assaults. He indicated he wants to revert to policies upended by the Trump administration.

“We can combat campus sexual assault under Title IX—something the Trump administration and the current secretary of education have only undermined,” he said.

Cardona, whose career background is in K-12, didn’t address Title IX concerns during his remarks Wednesday.

Joe Biden
President-elect Joe Biden delivers pre-holiday remarks on December 22 in Wilmington, Delaware.
Joshua Roberts/Getty

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