Public schools that don’t offer full-time, in-person learning for students five days a week next fall risk intervention from the U.S. Education Department.
U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona shared this message with journalists, just two months after his Senate confirmation, during the Education Writers Association’s 2021 National Seminar.
“I want all students to have the opportunity to learn in person in the spring, but I expect it in the fall,” he said at the conference’s opening plenary on May 3. “I need all students to have the opportunity to learn in the school house.”
Moreover, Cardona said, there is a role for increased federal oversight for school districts that fail to reopen for in-person learning.
Cardona was interviewed by Sarah Carr, an EWA board member and independent journalist, and also answered questions from the virtual audience.
Increased Federal Oversight
“Yes,” he said, when asked whether the Education Department may need to increase oversight. “While it’s not the federal government’s role to micromanage education, it is our role to make sure that all children across the country are getting a free and appropriate public education — one where they have the opportunity to succeed in life.”
“I take that very seriously,” said Cardona, who was the education commissioner in Connecticut before being tapped by President Biden to lead the federal agency. “It’s going to be my role and my agency’s role to support states on that but also call out where issues are happening.”
His remarks come as concerns mount over school districts that have been slow to return all students to classrooms, despite roughly $140 billion in federal stimulus aid flowing to K-12 schools from the most recent coronavirus relief package to help them reopen.
Nearly 80% of students are enrolled in schools that offer some type of in-person learning. This includes full-time instruction for all students or only certain groups, such as at-risk youth or those with disabilities. Additionally, some schools are operating on a hybrid model, which includes in-person and online learning.
According to the most recent federal data, 60% of fourth-grade and 69% of eighth-grade students were still enrolled in remote learning either full time or in a hybrid model — a status that disproportionately affects students of color and low-income students in urban districts.
In his remarks, Cardona emphasized his expectation that schools not simply reopen, but reopen in ways that rethink how to best serve students, especially low-income students and students of color.
Don’t Go Back to ‘Comfort Zone’
“My biggest fear is that we go back to practices that were comfortable before the pandemic, but led to the disparities and outcomes that we are experiencing as a country,” he said. “I don’t want us to go back to that comfort zone.”
He added, “We are going to have to rethink education and ensure that the funds are going to the students who were impacted the most. …That’s tough leadership. We are going to have to change what people are used to in schools.”
As for annual state assessments — the issue on which he’s taken the most heat so far for refusing to relieve states from their federal mandate to test students every year — the secretary clarified those assessments will help ensure that federal relief ends up with the students that need it the most.
“I don’t think there’s a teacher across the country that needs a standardized test to tell them how the children in front of them are doing,” he said. “Yet, we have to make decisions about how to move forward based on the data that we are receiving from states on the conditions of where they are, where their students are.”
He added: “We are making very serious decisions about how to move billions of dollars, so every little piece of data helps.”
The discussion was light on the bookends of K-12 — early education and higher education (see some tidbits below on canceling student loan debt and making college free) — but Cardona gave education reporters across the country insight on where the school reopening debate moves next.
As an added bonus, Secretary Cardona also promised to be as transparent as possible in the months and years ahead.
Other Big Takeaways:
- On the New York Times’ 1619 Project and schools adopting more diverse teachings about U.S. history and the impact of slavery: “While I know my role doesn’t influence curriculum, nor do I believe the Secretary of Education or Department of Education should be telling local districts what to teach in their courses, I do know that when students are seen in the curriculum and they’re felt — like when their stories are listened to or heard — they’re more likely to engage and want to be there,” he said. “I dont think it’s our role in the federal government to dictate what should be taught in the curriculum, but it is our goal to make sure students have access to a high-quality curriculum.”
- On school resource officers: In the wake of George Floyd’s death and the ensuing national reckoning over the impact of systemic racism and inequality, some school districts have moved to end contracts with school resource officers. They argued that in many cases SROs contribute to the disproportionate rate at which students of color and students with disabilities are disciplined. “When trained well and when working in partnership with the schools to be proactive and a support for students, it’s a positive thing,” Cardona said. “I’ve seen models where it works exceptionally well. It has to be done well … Or else it can turn negative. We don’t need officers to be there looking at offenses with the mentality of looking to try to catch students. That’s not what it should be.”
- On increased parent involvement in K-12: Cardona expects the states to show the federal government how they’ll use the billions in relief aid to improve connections with parents. He wants the states to survey parents about how schools can better support their children. “This pandemic taught us we have to be flexible; we have to be nimble, and we have to meet families where they are,” he said.
- On canceling student loan debt: Pressure is ratcheting up from progressive Democrats for the Biden administration to cancel up to $50,000 in student loan debt — something Biden has repeatedly said he does not and will not support. Instead, he’s supported up to $10,000 in forgiveness. But with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and their progressive colleagues in the House — including Rep. Ayanna Presley of Massachusetts and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota — determined to push for wide-scale debt relief, a lane to the White House could be opening. In recent weeks, Cardona was tasked with collecting stakeholder input and reporting back to the president. The secretary declined to comment on whether the administration might support a larger amount of debt relief, saying the department is still trying to understand what’s within its authority. “As soon as we get to a point where we can communicate on that, we will,” he said. Instead, Cardona talked about the need to rewrite borrower defense regulations that allow borrowers who have been defrauded by for-profit colleges to qualify for student loan forgiveness, and to correct past mistakes related to qualifying for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness plan.
- On free college: President Biden’s $1.9 trillion “American Families Plan” proposal includes $109 billion to cover two years of free community college, and another $39 billion to subsidize two years of tuition at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and other minority-serving institutions for families making less than $125,000. Some advocates are pushing the president to cover four years of tuition for students — though, as with student loan debt relief, Biden hasn’t rallied behind that proposal. Cardona, once again, demurred when asked whether Biden plans to act on free college, and pointed to the initiatives already on the table, like free community college.