Washington outsider Miguel Cardona, President Biden’s nominee to lead the Education Department is likely to face tough questions at his Senate confirmation hearing Wednesday, on political hot-button issues like school choice, student loan forgiveness, and most pressing: how to make good on Mr. Biden’s promise to reopen schools within 100 days of his inauguration. If confirmed, the Connecticut education commissioner will inherit an educational crisis brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.
Little is known about Cardona’s view on major education policy issues, since the former public school teacher only entered the national public eye in December when Biden announced his nomination to lead the Education Department. Cardona, who began his career as a fourth-grade teacher, quickly rose through the administrative ranks. In August 2019, he was appointed to lead Connecticut’s Education Department, becoming the first Latino to hold the position.
In that role, Cardona spent much of his time managing the havoc the pandemic has wreaked upon the state’s schools. As Connecticut’s education commissioner, Cardona pushed schools to reopen, citing growing achievement gaps that remote learning has only made worse.
“Yes, we’re in a health pandemic, but this is also an education emergency,” Cardona said in an interview with The Connecticut Mirror in August. “We have to accelerate our efforts because COVID accelerated disparities.”
As of December 2020, about 20% of Connecticut’s students were learning either fully or mostly in person and a little more than 40% were in school via a hybrid model, according to data from the state.
In December, Mr. Biden promised “that the majority of our schools can be open by the end of my first 100 days,” an ambitious goal that Mr. Biden later said only applied to K-8 students and not those in high school. In an interview with Connecticut Public Radio last week, Cardona said that as education secretary, he’d draw on his experience reopening Connecticut’s schools and listening to health experts.
“We need to have a very close partnership with our health department,” Cardona said. “At the national level, that’s critically important that we work with CDC, that we work with Health and Human Services to make sure that the decisions that are being made around schools are in line with what we know to protect people. That partnership matters.”
Senators are also likely to press Cardona on his views surrounding student loan debt. In the same interview, the education commissioner said tackling student debt “would be a priority” and he was “totally in support” of the president’s plan to back congressional action that would cancel $10,000 of student debt per borrower and said he would work with Congress on “a plan that provides some relief to our students in higher education.”
Mr. Biden’s plan to forgive some student debt doesn’t go as far as some progressive Democrats would like. During the 2020 presidential primaries, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts proposed forgiving up to $50,000 in debt and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont called for cancelling all student loans. Both senators serve on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee holding Cardona’s confirmation hearing Wednesday.
Last year federal student loan debt reached an all-time high, nearing $1.6 trillion among more than 40 million Americans, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. On average, student loan borrowers owe between $200 and $299 every month, an amount that for many can be untenable; about 1 in every 5 borrowers is in default, according to the Education Department.
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