For so many of our schools and far too many of our students, this unprecedented year has piled on crisis after crisis,” Miguel Cardona said in December after being tapped by President Joe Biden to be the country’s next education secretary.
Those challenges could soon become Cardona’s own. As education secretary, he would face both short-term questions about how schools should handle COVID and long-term ones about how to address learning loss and intra-party divides about how to improve schools.
But first, the former teacher and principal faces the Senate’s education committee, which will hold a confirmation hearing Wednesday. He’ll eventually face a vote by the full Senate, which is narrowly controlled by Democrats, making his confirmation likely.
Here are some questions we’ll be watching for — and expecting — in the hearing.
1. How will Cardona approach school reopening?
President Biden has promised to get more schools opened, through a combination of additional money, clearer guidance, and more vaccines.
As Connecticut’s education commissioner, Cardona has been an advocate for in-person instruction. “We have to maintain the social and emotional well-being of our learners,” he said last year.
“He is a real big proponent of keeping all classrooms open as much as possible,” said Jan Hochadel, president of the American Federation of Teachers Connecticut, which has disagreed with Cardona’s approach to reopening at times.
Even while pushing schools to reopen, Cardona maintained strong relationships with teachers unions.
That might well come up during the hearing, as some critics have complained that unions have stymied reopening. We also expect questions about what specific actions Cardona will take to get schools open, and whether more money — something Biden is pushing before Congress — will make a difference.
The science of COVID and school spread may also be a hot topic. Biden recently issued an executive order instructing the Department of Education to issue updated guidance for schools.
2. Will Cardona let states cancel testing this school year?
This is one of the most practical and immediate issues that Cardona will confront if confirmed. Right now, states are still required under federal law to administer standardized tests in grades three through eight in spring 2021. But many educators, unions, and state officials have argued that making testing work this year will be impractical, pointless, or distracting when so many students have not returned to school buildings.
DeVos issued waivers last school year, but declined to do so again. If he clears the Senate, Cardona could reverse that decision.
As state commissioner, Cardona did not seek a testing waiver for 2021, as some other state chiefs have. In fact, his department issued a memo defending testing. “State assessments are important guideposts to our promise of equity,” it reads. Some civil rights groups have made similar arguments recently.
Still, Cardona has expressed skepticism about linking test scores with teacher evaluations, warning against “reducing a teacher to a test score.”
Some Congressional Democrats — including Sen. Patty Murray, who as education committee chair will lead Wednesday’s hearing — have also weighed in against cancelling testing.
Murray has already said that she supports Cardona.
3. What will be Cardona’s overarching strategy for improving schools, during and after COVID?
“We must embrace the opportunity to reimagine education — and build it back better,” Cardona said in December, echoing a Biden campaign slogan. “For me, education was the great equalizer. But for too many students, your ZIP code and your skin color remain the best predictor of the opportunities you’ll have in your lifetime.”
The question will be what that “reimagination” looks like, and how Cardona will try to make it happen. Will he focus on resource inequities? A national campaign to make up learning loss through tutoring? Diversifying the teaching profession, something he’s written about? Expanding access to bilingual education, which he has a degree in and has advocated for in Connecticut? More technology? School infrastructure? School integration?
He’ll likely face questions Wednesday about what specific strategies he’ll promote, particularly when it comes to making up COVID-induced learning loss.
4. How will Cardona approach the school choice battles that defined prior administrations?
Unlike the Trump and Obama administrations, the Biden administration’s education department won’t be focused on the issue of school choice. But it’s not clear how Cardona will approach charter schools, which have long divided the Democratic party.
Cardona, who spent most of his career working in a public school district, has a thin track record on the issue. “Charter schools provide choice for parents that are seeking choice, so I think it’s a viable option,” he said during his Connecticut confirmation hearing. But neighborhood schools are “going to be the core work that not only myself but the people behind me in the agency that I represent will have while I’m commissioner.”
“He is much more of an educator than a politician or an ideologue — he’s not pro-charter or anti-charter,” said Dacia Toll, the CEO of Achievement First, a charter network with schools in Connecticut.
As education secretary, Cardona may be able to almost completely sidestep the question. One exception: The U.S. Department of Education regularly issues hundreds of millions in grants to help new charter schools start. Critics want this fund eliminated; charter advocates want it to continue.
There’s a good chance Cardona will face questions from Republicans who support charter schools and private school vouchers.
5. How quickly, and how exactly, will Cardona reverse some of DeVos’ moves?
Campaigning for president, Biden promised to reverse a number of DeVos’ decisions, particularly around civil rights. The list of what Cardona could undo — or in some cases re-do — is long.
DeVos scrapped Obama-era guidance attempting to reduce disproportionate suspension rates of students of color. She eliminated a document carving out how districts could consider students’ race in school integration plans, and she defunded a small grant program encouraging school districts to pursue integration. She sought to limit transgender students’ ability to use bathrooms and play on sports teams based on their identified gender. And, late in her tenure, she stopped enforcing a federal law limiting religious groups from accessing charter school funding, saying that it was unconstitutional.
Progressive and civil rights groups have made several of these items a key priority. The questions for Cardona, if confirmed, becomes how quickly he acts and whether he reverses DeVos in every area that he can.
This article was originally posted on 5 big questions Miguel Cardona may face during his confirmation hearing
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