On February 3, the Senate HELP Committee held its confirmation hearing of Connecticut Commissioner of Education Miguel Cardona to be US Secretary of Education. The hearing was largely uneventful and it is expected that Cardona’s nomination will proceed to full Senate confirmation as soon as this week with likely bipartisan votes to approve him. On the topic of reopening schools, Cardona stated, “We have great examples throughout our country of schools that are able to reopen safely and do so while following mitigation strategies.” He also indicated in response to Chair Murray that we should do “everything in our power to safely reopen schools.” When asked about COVID relief funding, Cardona focused on personal protective equipment (PPE), school cleaning, and ventilation.

On the issue of whether states should waive assessment requirements, Cardona stated that he did not think that “we need to be bringing students in just to test them on a standardized test” but that “if we don’t assess where our students are and their level of performance, it’s going to be difficult for us to provide some targeted support in our resource allocation in the manner that can best support the closing of the gaps that have been exacerbated due to the pandemic.” Cardona also said that “states should not only have an opportunity to weigh in on how they plan on implementing (assessments), what’s best for their students, but also the accountability measures on whether or not those assessments should really be tied into any accountability measures.”

During the hearing, there were few objections on the Republican side to more COVID relief funding, except for Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT), who drew attention to using COVID relief dollars to hire more teachers and thus shrink class sizes. While he supported higher salaries for teachers, he stated: “I would underscore that I’m concerned that the funding that we’re describing is something which the teachers union is very happy to receive, but which will not result in actual improvement in the scores and the performance of our young people.” Senator Maggie Hassan used some of her time to have Cardona describe where he thought federal dollars were still needed. In his response, Cardon focused on PPE, school cleaning, and ventilation.

Several Committee members used their time to focus on the mental health issues that many students were enduring as a result of the isolation brought by COVID. Chair Murray stated in her testimony that she “had heard from a father of a high school freshman in Spokane who is worried about the social and psychological toll that the pandemic is taking on his son” and mentioned the loss of access to mental health services as a key problem to be addressed. In response to a question from Senator Maggie Hassan (D-NH) on how new COVID relief dollars should be used, Cardona indicated that there was a need for more school counselors. Senator Jacky Rosen (D-NV) talked about 18 recent suicides in Clark County and asked about prioritizing student mental health in reopening schools. Senator Ben Ray Lujan (D-NM) also discussed mental health access for students, educators, and staff.

Commissioner Cardona’s background includes his arrival to the United States and entering kindergarten with no knowledge of English and his subsequent development into a bilingual student through his public school’s English learners program. Only Senator Tina Smith (D-MN) sought comment from him about the value of bilingualism. In his response, Cardona stated: “Senator I wholeheartedly agree that not only should we be encouraging having more than one language bilingualism, but also we should be acknowledging not only bilingualism but biculturalism … we really have to rethink how we’re doing this and understand the value and benefit of not only being bilingual in this country, but being bicultural and your ability to work globally if you can do that.” Senator Smith agreed with that sentiment: “Too often we think of students that need to learn English as … their first language … (as) a barrier that they have to overcome rather than an asset that they have for themselves but also, as you’re indicating, an asset for the entire classroom as all the kids can learn from one another about their different languages and their different cultures.”