President-elect Joe Biden plans to appoint Miguel Cardona, the head of public schools in Connecticut, to be his education minister, Juana Summers, a source familiar with the decision, tells NPR. Since the decision was not known, the source was not allowed to talk publicly.
After becoming an assistant superintendent in the school district in Meriden, Conn., which serves approximately 9,000 students, Cardona became the highest education official in Connecticut in 2019. It’s the district where Cardona grew up and went to school, and also where he began his educational career as a teacher in elementary school. He served there for 10 years as a principal and was honored in 2012 as the state’s principal of the year.
On an early Biden pledge to select an education secretary who was a teacher, Cardona makes true: “A teacher. Promise,” Biden said back in July 2019 to the NEA, the nation’s largest teachers union.
In a letter last week to Biden, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus threw its support behind Cardona.
The parents of Cardona are from Puerto Rico and when they came to Connecticut, they lived in public housing. Biden has said that he wants to set up the “the most diverse Cabinet in history.”
Most of the recent tenure of Cardona has centered on reopening schools in the state after the pandemic. Around one-third of the state’s public school students are currently able to attend full-time school in person, according to the CT Mirror, a local newspaper. Cardona has balanced the demands of teachers’ unions and parents in the face of budget limitations, like many state and district leaders around the country.
“Yes, we’re in a health pandemic, but this is also an education emergency,” he told the Mirror in August. “We have to accelerate our efforts because COVID accelerated disparities. We have to really double down and put our heads together to do what’s best for kids and for the community. And that includes making sure that health and safety stay at the top of the conversation.”
For a Biden administration that faces huge challenges in getting America’s children back to school in the midst of the pandemic, this experience is appealing. Biden has said, however, that this would be a primary focus: promising to open the “majority” of schools in the first 100 days of his presidency.
A top priority of the Biden administration would also be to boost school funding. Just about 10 percent of the dollars spent on K-12 public education in this country is regulated by the U.S. Education Department. The $16 billion Title I initiative, which goes to schools serving the most high-poverty students, does a lot of that. Biden has requested that this funding be tripled. He also advocated forgiving student loan debt in higher education and rendering community colleges tuition-free.
The next education secretary will inherit a litany of problems and strict deadlines with those goals in mind. Here are five items that could top the to-do list of the next secretary:
1. The reopening plans for COVID-19 school
Just as current Secretary Betsy DeVos had little power to force schools to reopen, Biden will also have little ability to back her successor as he, too, seeks to promote a return to in-person learning. Federal support for schools passes through Congress, after all.
Perhaps the most significant role Biden’s new education secretary will play is a symbolic one: using the bully pulpit of the department to appeal to the needs of the public schools of the nation and the more than 50 million children who depend on them, as DeVos did to campaign for school choice.
It is worth remembering that the new Secretary will help shape and defend the first education budget plan of the Biden administration. This may be the first, best chance to secure new funding to assist schools that have been ravaged by pandemic-driven budget cuts, especially in traditionally underfunded communities where low-income students and colored students have been hit hard and have missed months of learning.
John B. King Jr., DeVos’ predecessor, and Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, wrote in a recent Op-Ed., “The Secretary of Education must use his or her platform to lead a nationwide conversation about education through a racial equity lens,” “That conversation must center on the needs of students from marginalized communities, clearly illuminate the impacts of the pandemic, and demonstrate how those impacts interact with and exacerbate hundreds of years of systemic racism.”
Efforts to reduce learning losses are also being discussed by schools, including extending the school year and recruiting tutors. But they would need help paying for those efforts, and a convincing advocate in the Department of Education who can put the case to Congress and the citizens of the United States.
2. In order to try, or not to test
In the spring of 2020, DeVos waived the federal requirement that students take the regular, year-end standardized exams as school districts around the country grappled with the complexities of remote learning. So far, she has declined to grant a new waiver for 2021, although it is definitely possible for the next secretary. The question is, are they going to? Or are they to?
With teacher unions traditionally opposed to testing, the issue of testing has created a divide between conventional education allies, and many civil rights advocates arguing that these assessments are important to understand who has fallen behind, and how far they have fallen since schools first closed in March.
3. For student borrowers, pandemic relief
Much has been done on whether or how the Biden administration will seek to remove the loans of millions of student borrowers, but the more important issue for his secretary of education would be whether to expand the existing repayment moratorium to more than 40 million federal student loan borrowers.
DeVos extended the deadline to Jan. 31, but it seems likely that the Biden administration would want to allow creditors at least a few more months of breathing space, with the economy still struggling. Clare McCann, who studies higher education policy at New America, a liberal-leaning think tank, says the next secretary will also have to deal with the risks of such an extension.
“The further you get from people making payments, the harder it’s going to be to re-engage with those borrowers and to get them back into the habit of making payments and kind of get back in touch with them,” says McCann.
4. Re-establish Obama-era guidelines
Scutting guidelines provided by its predecessor is one of the simplest things to do with a new administration. DeVos used her authority to revoke Obama-era guidelines that promoted attempts to desegregate schools, allowed students to use facilities consistent with their gender identity and shielded “discriminatory discipline.” from students of color.
The discipline guidance threatened schools with a federal investigation if major racial inequalities were exposed by suspension and expulsion rates. “racist school discipline policies continue to limit the learning opportunities and compromise the safety of Black, Latina and Native girls in this country. Schools — in whatever form they exist in this year, and beyond — should commit to changing these inequities and creating environments that are inclusive and supportive.”racist school discipline policies continue to limit learning opportunities and compromise the safety of black, Latina and indigenous girls in this country. Schools should commit to changing these inequities and creating inclusive and supportive environments in whatever form they exist this year and beyond.
Not only could the incoming secretary re-issue this guidance, they could also reinforce it and issue new guidance of their own.
5. Relief for creditors defrauded
The law known as Borrower Protection introduces the legislative equivalent of a Rubik’s Cube to the next secretary. The decades-old law was rewritten in 2016 by the Obama administration to help compensate borrowers who, including Corinthian Colleges and ITT Technical Institute, had been defrauded by for-profit colleges and universities. DeVos found it too generous and performed a thorough rewrite, but that edition of 2019 was deemed so draconian that it was rejected by a bipartisan Congress, prompting President Trump to use a rare veto.
A controversial regulation that is currently being challenged in court but may be difficult to rapidly replace, as well as a backlog of tens of thousands of borrower claims, will be inherited by the next secretary. Most of the backlog should fall under the rule’s previous iterations and will possibly be processed, but the department will still have to speed up inquiries into the several other schools that borrowers say deceived them, beyond Corinthian and ITT Tech.