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Secretary Cardona Embraces Partnerships to Reshape Public Education

  • U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona promised educators that his primary focus this spring will be the reopening of the nation’s schools as quickly and as safely as possible.

    “To me that is the greatest equity lever I can pull right now. There is no substitute for in-person learning, so getting our students in school safely is goal number one,” said Cardona, speaking at the Council of the Great City Schools’ virtual Legislative/Policy Conference just three weeks after the Senate confirmed his nomination to the post by President Biden.

    The secretary then made a key point about the work going forward. 

    “This pandemic has really served to sharpen our swords in a larger fight over inequity, where we have students that have access and students that don’t have access -- not only to academic attainment but to opportunities for quality health care, quality housing and other factors that affect the students we serve,” he said.

    “I want to rewrite the narrative of education in our country,” Cardona said. “For far too long public education has been pushed around, kicked around. We do so much good for students and oftentimes, we’re left responding to criticisms, or playing defense, instead of sharing the best practices that lift students not only academically but providing that sense of community that we know they need. Together, we’re going to do that, and I look forward to our partnership.”

    Prior to his appointment, Cardona was education commissioner in Connecticut and led safe school reopening efforts in that state in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis. His office focused on student access to technology to support at-home learning and collaborated with the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence to provide free social and emotional learning courses. He began his career as an elementary teacher.  U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona

    The U.S. Department of Education has released plans to provide as much as $130 billion to help schools reopen, including social-emotional support, with an additional $10 billion from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to assist in monitoring the virus. Cardona reassured urban educators that the administration was implementing “critically important safeguards [to ensure] the money that is earmarked for education and for students in need” goes to those students. 

    “We will be tracking how the funds are being spent and jumping in when we have to jump in,” he said.

    Cardona told conferees that “in education we need to remove the silos” and find ways to share best practices from one district with others across the country. In response to the crisis and “even before the pandemic, districts served as places of innovation, where they problem solve,” he said. “Yet the challenge we have, whether at the classroom level all the way up to the district and state level, is that there’s no mechanism for sharing best practices throughout the country. Students learn best from students; teachers learn best from teachers. As secretary of education, I want to improve those opportunities for us to learn from you.”

    Los Angeles school board member and Council secretary-treasurer Kelly Gonez moderated the session, with input from Dallas Schools superintendent Michael Hinojosa and Boston Schools Superintendent Brenda Casselius.

    Hinojosa described urban school systems having multiple complicating factors, including high numbers of immigrant students, poverty and lack of connectivity and expressed hope various federal agencies would coordinate efforts to provide infrastructure help.

    Cardona agreed, responding that “yes, interagency collaboration matters but so does the ongoing dialogue with groups like yours.”

    Gonez asked Cardona about plans to serve students with disabilities and whether there would be a move to fully fund the Individual with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

    Cardona recalled that when schools were shuttered in Connecticut due to the pandemic, “I received so many letters from families whose experience with remote learning because of a disability was just not adequate. What we did is, we partnered with special education advocates and with our families to really accelerate their return to school.” 

    For many students, “a laptop doesn’t cut it,” he said. For students with disabilities, “we need to make sure we’re providing them with the support they need, not only in a one-shot deal but in making sure their programming for months and years to come accelerates the closing of those gaps that were exacerbated during this pandemic.”

    In terms of IDEA funding, “we’ve almost normalized the fact that it’s underfunded,” Cardona said. “We really need to advocate.”

    In closing, Cardona expressed optimism that in partnership with districts, the federal education department can advocate for students “by lifting up best practices, by being transparent, by being open about the challenges.” The agency plans a campaign called Heal, Learn, Grow Together to promote public education, he said. 

    “We have a lot more to say, and together we can say it louder,” Cardona told urban  educators. “I look forward to working with you to do that.”