Credit: Michael Burke / EdSource
U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, right, speaks at the Extra Yard for Teachers Summit at the Los Angeles Convention Center on Jan. 7, 2023.

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona was back in California this week, his latest trip to the state as he visited Los Angeles for a series of events honoring teachers.

That included Monday evening’s college football national championship game at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, where K-12 educators from across the country were honored on the field for excellence in teaching.

Cardona has a lot on his plate. A new Congress was just sworn in, including a House with a Republican majority that could make it difficult for President Joe Biden to advance his pre-K-12 agenda. Meanwhile, nationwide test scores in reading and especially math were down significantly in 2022, prompting renewed calls to help students who fell behind during the pandemic.

On the higher education front, Cardona is preparing for the Supreme Court to hear arguments next month on whether the Biden administration can legally forgive billions in student debt loans. Just last week, the departments of Education and Justice filed a legal brief with the court defending the administration’s authority in forgiving those debts.

Cardona this past weekend sat down with EdSource for an interview to discuss those issues and more. The conversation was edited for clarity and length.

What is the top priority you will be seeking from Congress this year? Is there an area where you expect to find bipartisan agreement?

This president has worked really hard to make sure that there are going to be new jobs in this country. The unemployment rate is really low and there’s going to be a demand for so many new jobs. So we’re going to have to make sure that our schools are preparing students for options. Two-year schools, four-year schools that are connected to the workforce. I think that’s an area of overlap with our Republican colleagues. So we’re talking about career and technical education pathways, and really evolving our high schools. That’s something that I really look forward to locking arms over.

We want our students to be prepared to compete not only in our country, but internationally. So we have to also think about pathways in multilingualism. I recently attended an educational ministerial summit in France. A majority of our students aren’t multilingual, and we shouldn’t be proud of that. Our kids deserve better. We should have a level of urgency like never before based on what the recent nation’s report card data showed us.

Congress allotted a total of about $190 billion in 2020 and 2021 in pandemic relief funding to help schools combat learning loss, and that money is still being spent. Have you seen anything to assure you that the money is being used wisely and making a difference? 

Absolutely. Without this money, the conversation we’d be having right now is, which schools are closing, and are we tracking lost kids? I was at a swearing-in ceremony for California State Superintendent of Public Instruction (Tony) Thurmond. And (Los Angeles Unified) Superintendent (Alberto) Carvalho was speaking and talking about how he’s filled positions this year. Every position was filled. If it weren’t for federal dollars, that wouldn’t be happening here in LA and across the country. We do have shortages, but if it weren’t for the federal dollars, I’ve had state chiefs tell me, we’d be talking about colleges closed, schools closed.

We know that over 90% of the CARES dollars have been used and that a high percentage of the American Rescue Plan dollars have been obligated. I’ve seen mental health services provided in school due to federal dollars. In Las Vegas last year, I heard from a student who said, if it weren’t for a summer program, he doesn’t know if he’d be around. He was dealing with some serious mental health issues. One of his close friends died. And the federal dollars were paying for that summer program to reconnect kids early. There were more students in after-school programming, in summer school programming this past year than ever. That’s in part due to the American Rescue Plan dollars.

So I’m proud of it. We still have a ways to go. And we can’t stop that level of urgency after the American Rescue Plan dollars end. That wasn’t intended to be a patch on the lack of education funding that we’re seeing in our states. So it’s my expectation that state and local leaders match the level of urgency that our president has shown in his first year-and-a-half in office around education funding.

Are you saying states should increase education funding after federal relief dollars go away to make up that difference?

The American Rescue Plan dollars were not intended to address lack of funding at the state and local level. It was intended to get students back in school for learning loss recovery and for mental health support. And I’m proud to say that they’re using the money for the right things. But I need there to be that same level of passion and urgency around state-level funding for education to make sure that the supports that our students are getting now, that they continue to get it when the American Rescue Plan dollars are drawn down.

Do you think that’s realistic given some of the uncertain economic forecasts?

The economy rebounded better than most other countries. We’re leading the world around that. When I talk to my colleagues from other countries, whether I talk to the minister in France or Portugal, they didn’t have the American Rescue Plan dollars. And so the recovery in the United States has in large part been supported by the federal government. I anticipate that we are in a better position to continue the growth. I just think the focus needs to be on education.

Remember omicron? Remember what that did? When a school shuts down, a community shuts down. So I want to make sure that we’re cognizant of the fact that we now control that at the state level, that if we’re not adequately funding education and we’re talking about school closures, that’s preventable. We need to start thinking about how we’re going to continue the funding to support our students and our educators.

Many districts are saying they can’t find tutors, and one of the most effective strategies for learning recovery is intensive and frequent one-on-one or small-group tutoring. How are states outside California addressing this challenge?

The president made a call to action for 250,000 tutors and mentors and we’re eagerly working with state and local leaders to bring folks in. But I think what you have too is, because the job market is so good, there are so many options. So we need to encourage folks to get involved in supporting schools, being mentors, connecting with the community-based organizations and places that provide support to students after school. But there’s still no replacement for a highly qualified teacher in the classroom. And while it’s important to get tutors, it’s also important to make sure we have highly qualified teachers with all students, including our students in our urban centers where teacher transiency and vacancies are more prevalent.

Let’s transition to higher education. Here in California and across the country, there have been big enrollment declines at community colleges since the onset of the pandemic. It seems like those declines have bottomed out. Do you think the colleges can fully recover? And do you think they still play an important role?

I think they have a more important role in the next five years than they did even in the last five years. There is a growing need for jobs like advanced manufacturing, construction management. And with the infrastructure plan, with the work in the CHIPS and Science Act,  with the work in the climate provisions of the Inflation Reduction Act, there are going to be jobs that need to be filled. It’s the role of the community colleges to take the skill set that’s needed for these jobs and create programming to get our high school students prepared to get into those jobs.

And the Department of Education is going to continue to stand behind the important work of community colleges. We’re going to try and connect our high schools to community colleges in a way that hasn’t been done in the past. Blur the lines so that juniors and seniors in high school can start getting community college credits, to get a credential or a microcredential that prepares them for the workforce needs, with the opportunity to go back into a four-year school and get a higher degree to get better earning potential.

Next month, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in a lawsuit against the administration’s plan to forgive billions in federal student loan debt. What are your expectations for that? 

The Heroes Act gives me the authority to waive debts in a national emergency. The pandemic was a national emergency. The last administration used the same authority, the Heroes Act, to pause student loan payments. We continue that. And we’re also saying, I have the authority to waive some of these costs to help everyday Americans get back on their feet and not end up worse than before the pandemic. Congress provided me with that authority, and I’m exercising it unapologetically. And the courts are going to see it that way. The majority of Americans see it that way too. It’s no different than how we help small businesses. So it’s a little bit of common sense here. We want to take the partisanship out of it and focus on how 40 million Americans can benefit now, how 90% of the benefits will go to people making under $75,000. We’re going to continue fighting for borrowers, we’re going to continue to keep the costs of college down. We’re going to make college more accessible, more affordable.

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