Connecticut Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona — President Joe Biden’s pick to become U.S. education secretary — received bipartisan support during his nearly 2.5-hour senate confirmation hearing Wednesday, although divisions over transgender athletes and suspending standardized testing were evident.
“I think you’re eminently qualified and I look forward to working with the chairperson to expeditiously get your nomination through,” said Sen. Richard Burr, the top Republican with the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP), which is overseeing the confirmation.
The reception of Cardona stood in stark contrast to the tone of the 2017 confirmation hearing for Betsy DeVos, who served as education secretary under Donald Trump. That hearing lasted 3.5 hours and featured both former Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman, who introduced and endorsed DeVos to the committee, and his successor Sen. Chris Murphy, who was visibly upset when DeVos said it may be appropriate to arm school staff to protect against grizzly bears.
During Cardona’s confirmation hearing senators from both parties seemed to embrace the nomination of a traditional educator to take the reins. Billionaire philanthropist DeVos, whose confirmation was narrowly approved, was a non-traditional pick compared to Cardona, who started his 23-year career in Connecticut as a teacher in his hometown of Meriden. He gradually rose through the ranks and was tapped to become Connecticut’s education commissioner only six months before the pandemic shut down schools last March.
Some clear divisions, however, were present throughout the hearing.
Several Republicans pressed Cardona to disavow the practice of allowing transgender females to participate in women’s sports, while others questioned where he stands on requiring standardized testing this spring. On the other side of the aisle, Democrats urged Cardona to work to cancel student debt immediately. But on the broad message of getting schools reopened, there was wide agreement.
Cardona received the most pushback on the role he sees the U.S. Department of Education playing in the debate over whether those who are biologically male, but identify as female, can compete against female athletes.
Connecticut’s role in this debate has been polarized after three female track athletes here filed a complaint in 2019 with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil rights arguing that their Title IX rights were violated by a conference policy they believe pits girls against athletes who are biologically male. The track athletes say the policy has robbed them of top finishes and possibly college scholarships. The Trump administration last fall found the policy violated a federal law that prohibits sex discrimination and threatened to withhold federal funding.
Pressed by several Republican senators on his position, Cardona said he supports the rights of transgender students to participate in school activities, but stopped short of declaring a position on athletic competitions.
“I think it’s the legal responsibility of schools to provide opportunities for students to participate in activities and this includes students who are transgender,” he said. “I believe schools should offer the opportunity for students to engage in extracurricular activities, even if they’re transgender. I think that’s their right.”
Several Republicans, including Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, weren’t pleased with the response.
“So you don’t have a problem then with boys running in the girls track meet, swimming meets, you name it? You’re okay with boys competing with girls,” Rand said. “A lot of us think that’s bizarre, not very fair… You’re going to run the Department of Education, you’ve got no problem with it — that concerns me. And I think it’s this kind of thing is going to lead to really just the vast majority of America just wondering who are these people that think it’s okay, from what planet are you from?”
Lost learning and schools opening
Biden has set a goal to reopen the majority of schools in the country within his first 100 days in office.
In Connecticut, Cardona pushed districts to reopen but ultimately left it up to local officials to decide. Roughly one-third of Connecticut’s public school students had the ability to attend school in person full-time when Biden announced Cardona as his pick for education secretary. Last week, 51% of school districts in Connecticut were operating under a fully in-person learning model; the larger urban district remain only partially open, however.
Senators asked whether Cardona would take the same approach as education secretary.
“We need schools to open safely and to stay open safely, while that was considered partisan and dangerous when some suggested it last year. Since President Biden won [and] over a million vaccines from Operation Warp Speed [are] being delivered daily, more folks who’ve changed their tune and I welcome that change. COVID-19 related school closures have led to significant learning loss,” said Burr.
But there are huge differences in opinion about the role the federal government should play in measuring that loss, and Burr and others, who don’t believe students should be required to take standardized tests this spring, asked Cardona where he stands on the issue. In Connecticut, Cardona requested a waiver from the U.S. Department of Education to not use this spring’s standardized test results in the state’s accountability system and scoring of schools and districts.
While Cardona didn’t articulate a firm position on the question, he said he sees value in benchmarking.
“If we don’t assess where our students are, and their level of performance, it’s going to be difficult for us to provide some targeted support in our resource allocation in the manner that can best support the closing of the [achievement] gaps that have been exacerbated due to this pandemic,” Cardona said.
Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy agreed, saying the tests are a tool to measure whether federal spending is working.
“I think it’s really hard to figure out how to target resources if you don’t know how your kids are performing,” he said. “We want to make sure that money is spent well and having a sense of what kids are succeeding and what kids aren’t.”
Asked whether he supports having all students and staff vaccinated before schools reopen for in-person learning, Cardona said he doesn’t believe that was necessary in Connecticut.
“We have examples — and I know in Connecticut we have many examples — but we have great examples throughout our country of schools that are able to reopen safely and do so while following mitigation strategies. While I recognize that that is the case, I do believe that making sure surveillance testing is something that we focus on,” Cardona said.
Cardona also made the case for Congress to pass legislation, as Biden is proposing, to funnel more money to schools.
“So much change has happened. We’re going to need more counselors in our schools, we’re going to need to make sure we have summer programming, we’re going to need to make sure we have extended day,” Cardona said. “If we really want to recover, we really need to invest now or we’re going to pay later.”
Gov. Ned Lamont, who watched Cardona’s confirmation hearing from his office at the state Capitol, has touted Connecticut’s push to get students back into classrooms — a message that was reinforced Wednesday.
“The goal was to get as many kids back in the classroom because that is where they would be the most successful, and that was where they would be safest when it came to the spread of COVID-19, so long as proper public health procedures and infection controls were put in place. Connecticut has proven to be a leader in this area, as the Centers for Disease Control recently affirmed the priority in getting kids back in the classroom,” said Max Reiss, the governor’s spokesman. “As for more federal support for schools, any additional relief is welcome, as it will only strengthen the state’s efforts to provide in-person education to as many children as possible.”
An important part of the nation’s recovery from the pandemic, Cardona said, is to boost college enrollment. In his opening statement, he raised the impact the decline in college enrollment will have on this generation of students.
“Those declines were most striking at community colleges, institutions that have long served as entry points to higher education and economic mobility for so many,” he said.
Nationwide, community college enrollment dropped by 9.5% this fall. In Connecticut, there was a 15% drop at the start of the semester, a number which included a substantial number of Black and Latino students.
To rebuild the community colleges, Cardona wants to do more to make community college programs accessible, especially for first-generation students who may not see it as an option.
“We will make community college accessible to every student who seeks opportunity through education, including strengthening this nation’s best-kept secret: community colleges,” Cardona said.
While he said he supports reducing student loan debt, Cardona was caught between the debate over whether the federal government should cancel debt for some borrowers or drastically reduce it.
Burr warned Cardona, however, that he would oppose any proposal or effort from the administration that would eliminate debt entirely and place the burden on taxpayers.
“I’m not eager to see the Biden administration pursue dangerous and foolhardy proposals to simply forgive student loans,” he told Cardona. “I invite you to work with Republicans and Democrats in [the] Senate to pass legislation that dramatically simplifies student loan repayment options, allows borrowers to pay whatever they can reasonably afford, capped at 10% of their discretionary income, and have their loan forgiven after 20 years.”
But Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, later cited how student loan debt is disproportionately impacting Black and Latino students and asked for Cardona to commit to doing everything he can to bring relief to those with student debt, including using his executive authority to cancel some student debt.
“The law and this is clear, Congress gave the power to the Secretary of Education,” Warren said. “So if confirmed, that tool will be waiting on your desk, when you are sworn in, and that is tremendous power to help.”
Connecticut college graduates in 2019 had the third highest average debt among all 50 states, at $38,546, and 56% of college graduates had debt, the Institute for College Access and Success reports. About 1 in every 5 borrowers is in default, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
Pressed on this issue multiple times, Cardona was sympathetic for the need for relief for those burdened with huge student loan payments, especially Black and Latino students, but stopped short of promising to outright cancel their debt.
“It’s disproportionately affecting them more. I recently read that for Black students who graduate 12 years later, they’re still paying more than … when they took the loan out because of the interest. So 12 years after starting the loan, they owe more. That’s exacerbating gaps, that’s perpetuating the haves and have nots,” he said.
Who is Connecticut’s education commissioner right now?
As of Wednesday night, Cardona remained the commissioner of the Connecticut State Department of Education. That will not change until the U.S. Senate votes to confirm his nomination.
“Gov. Lamont and the State Board of Education will move to name an interim Commissioner of Education once a vacancy becomes available. Currently, there is not a vacancy. Deputy commissioners and agency staff have been handling the day-to-day operations of the State Department of Education, communicating daily with superintendents, boards of education, and parents. Once an interim commissioner is named, the search will begin for a permanent replacement,” said Reiss.
That final vote could come soon, though the impeachment proceedings or COVID relief negotiations could slow it down. Burr vowed to urge a quick vote.
“I will encourage all of my colleagues on my side to support you as well, and to move expeditiously to have you sworn in as the next Secretary of Education. I look forward to working with you,” he said.