Policy Matters Blog

Highlights From Dr. Cardona's Confirmation Hearing to Be Secretary of Education

Yesterday, the Senate HELP Committee held the confirmation hearing for Dr. Miguel Cardona, nominee for Secretary of Education. Dr. Cardona has been a public educator his entire life, serving as an elementary school teacher, school administrator, and most recently as the education commissioner for the state of Connecticut.  Although NASP does not endorse or oppose political appointees, we did send a letter to the HELP committee urging them to move swiftly through the confirmation process. 

The hearing was, in my opinion, delightfully boring, and stood in stark contrast to the controversial confirmation hearing for Betsy DeVos. (For more information on that hearing, see this previous Policy Matters blog). Both Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-WA) and Ranking Member Richard Burr (R-NC) expressed their confidence in Dr. Cardona to lead the Department of Education, signaling the likelihood that there will be broad bipartisan support for his confirmation.   

The line of questioning gives us a glimpse into possible priorities on behalf of the Senate HELP Committee and the Department of Education. Unsurprisingly, much of the hearing focused on the COVID-19 crisis. Senator Murrary rightly noted that our students and schools are in crisis, and that the lack of federal leadership in helping schools address this crisis has set us back. She stated that she hopes Congress and the Department will prioritize the safe reopening of schools and focus efforts to address both learning loss and the significant mental and behavioral health and social and emotional learning needs of students and staff. Dr. Cardona's opening remarks focused on equity. He correctly stated that significant inequity existed before the pandemic, and these inequities have only increased in light of COVID-19. He acknowledged that we must tackle this inequity head on if we are to make progress, an idea that permeates across all of the Biden Administration given his commitment to addressing the racial and economic inequity that exists in the country. This sentiment was echoed by many members of the HELP committee, indicating that early Congressional education related action will focus on addressing and mitigating the pact of COVID-19 for our students. 

Other topics of discussion included:

Student loans/college affordability. Although there is bipartisan acknowledgment of the student debt crisis, there is not bipartisan agreement on how to best tackle this issue. Senator Warren (D-MA) urged Dr. Cardona to expedite the cancellation of student debt, while others pressed for a more cautious approach to student debt reform. 

Access to mental health support. Several Senators noted the effects of pandemic school closures on students’ mental health and well-being. When asked by Senator Rosen (D-NV) about the prioritization of mental health needs in school reopening, Dr. Cardona said that access to mental health supports must be at the core of returning to in-person learning. He went on to say that the mental health needs of educators need to be addressed as well. We should expect to see the mental health and social–emotional needs of students prioritized in ongoing conversations surrounding reopening. 

Addressing the needs of students with disabilities. Senators Cassidy (R-LA) and Casey (D-PA) both questioned Dr. Cardona about how the Department of Education can best serve students with disabilities in identification and interventions. As Congress works to address learning lost during COVID-19, the unique needs of students with disabilities require close consideration. 

Civil rights. There was a disturbing line of questioning focused on the rights of transgender students to participate in activities using their preferred gender identity.  Dr. Cardona make it very clear that it is his view that we uphold the civil rights of all students. It is expected that President Biden will soon issue a directive once again clarifying that Title IX protections apply to discrimination on the basis of gender identiy and sexual orientation. NASP is advocating that this guidance be issued as soon as possible to deliver a clear message that schools must not engage in discriminatory actions against LGBTQ youth.

Testing and accountability. Teachers, school administrators, and other members of the education community are having ongoing conversations about the use of standardized assessments during such a unique and challenging year. Ranking Member Burr (R-NC) began his questioning with a focus on the efficacy of remote standardized assessment in accountability planning for schools. Senator Murphy (D-CT) and Chairwoman Murray (D-WA) both voiced their support for continuing assessments so that we can gauge where our students are and what targeted assistance they may need. Dr. Cardona echoed this support, but cautioned against a one-size-fits-all approach to testing. 

We will continue to follow Dr. Cardona’s confirmation process as it progresses through the Senate and look forward to working with Department of Education staff and Congressional leaders on our shared priorities. Stay tuned for additional updates as this confirmation is expected to move swiftly.