The most charged conversation at the hearing was started and fueled by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who raised the issue of whether transgender athletes should be able to compete in school sports.
“What do you think about boys in girls’ track meets like in Connecticut?” Paul asked Cardona, referring to transgender girls as boys. Connecticut, where Cardona is state education commissioner, allows students to join sports teams based on their gender identity, and last year, the U.S. Education Department under Betsy DeVos threatened to withhold federal funding from the state because of that position.
Cardona was clear in backing Biden’s support for the rights of transgender Americans. “If confirmed, it is my responsibility and privilege to make sure we’re following the civil rights of all students,” he said.
Paul wouldn’t let the subject drop, saying that he thought it was wrong and “bizarre” that transgender girls are allowed to play on girls’ sports teams, though always referring to them as “boys.”
“I come from a family with a girl that’s competed in college athletics, been state champions, and some boy that’s 6-foot-2 competing against my 5-foot-4 niece doesn’t feel fair,” Paul said. “I think most people in the country think that it is bizarre.”
Cardona continued to push back: “I think it is important for all students, including those that are transgender, [to be] afforded all of the opportunities they have.”
But he finally got tired of it.
Paul: You are okay with boys competing with girls?
Cardona: Respectfully, Senator, I think I answered the question.
The discussion on this subject goes in the category of things Cardona did not say.
Early in the hearing, Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) asked Cardona where he stood on giving states the right to skip giving federally mandated standardized tests to students this spring, because of the coronavirus pandemic. Last year, DeVos gave states waivers from the federal mandate as much of the country shut down when the pandemic began.
A number of states are seeking waivers from the Education Department for this spring, saying that it wouldn’t be fair to force students to take the exams after such a chaotic year and that the results would be meaningless. Late last month, the Education Department extended the Feb. 1 deadline for states to apply for waivers from the mandate in the K-12 law, known as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).
Before the hearing, Cardona had not indicated whether he would require that the tests be given or whether he would insist that states use the results in accountability formulas for individual schools, as ESSA requires. He didn’t clear that up during the hearing, either, keeping his options open.
Burr said in his opening statement: “We are going to have to have an adult conversation about academic testing for this school year. While we do need to know how much educational harm has happened, I’m not sure that the federal accountability system and existing state tests are the right thing in this moment.”
Then he discussed it with Cardona.
Burr: Some may want to pursue testing for data to understand the learning-loss problem that they have on their hands. But due to the validity and reliability issues of conducting testing remotely and in hybrid situations, testing experts say the scores may not even be comparable to scores from before or after covid-19. It really doesn’t seem fair to include test scores in schools with performance accountability measures as required under the ESSA under state plans. Do you plan to waive the need to include [test] scores in school accountability for state plans this year?
Cardona: … I don’t think I’m in favor of a “one size fits all” if the conditions under covid-19 prevent a student from being in school in person. I don’t think we need students to come in to test them on a standardized test. I don’t think that makes sense. With that said, if we don’t assess where our students are and their level of performance, it will be difficult for us to provide some targeted support in our resource allocation that can best support the closing of gaps that have been exacerbated.
Burr: Do you feel like the states should incorporate standardized testing this year given the circumstances of the pandemic?
Cardona: I feel they should have an opportunity to weigh in on how they plan on implementing it and [on] the accountability issues, and whether or not they should be tied into any accountability measures as well.
Cardona did not come down either way on Burr’s question.
This subject was raised by Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) — after he expressed support for Paul’s statements about transgender girls. Romney raised Biden’s nearly $2 trillion coronavirus relief proposal, which includes $130 billion to help K-12 schools reopen. The proposal says that schools can use the money for a range of things, including reducing class size; hiring more nurses, counselors, teachers and janitors; and buying personal protective equipment.
Romney made a confusing reference to the proposal, suggesting that it says schools can hire 345,000 more teachers and construct new school buildings — which it doesn’t. He then asked Cardona whether the administration planned to fire the teachers that are hired during the crisis after the coronavirus pandemic.
Romney: I don’t presume that it’s your plan or their plan to fire these teachers after covid is over. Is that right?
Cardona: Correct, senator.
Romney: … So I presume this is associated with saying that the smaller classroom size is going to get better education for our kids. But I haven’t seen any unbiased studies, other than from the teachers unions, that suggest that small classroom size correlates with student performance, obviously within some normal parameters. But as you look at the NAEP [National Association of Educational Progress] exams, the states at the very top have the same-size classrooms as the states at the very bottom. Is that correct? Do you understand that the same way that I do?
Cardona actually didn’t and said so, leading Romney to repeat it.
Cardona: I think there are numerous studies over time that have shown that classroom size isn’t necessarily the most important indicator. However, as a former teacher and principal and in my experience as an educator, I can tell you, when I have 15 students in front of me versus 28, I am able to give more specialized attention to those 15 students.
Cardona then said he thought it “would be unfair to compare” states with high and low NAEP test scores and assume that class sizes didn’t matter, saying that some communities may have more resources than others.
Romney pursued the subject, mentioning some studies that he said proved class size doesn’t matter. He cited one from the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. that looked at some nations with high test scores, such as South Korea and Singapore.
That study, however, did not note that families in those countries spend a lot of money on private tutoring and that some of those countries have made efforts to lower their class sizes. There are other McKinsey reports that do discuss the educational benefits of small class size. One says that students often “better understand and apply concepts in discussion with peer classmates,” which is difficult in traditional classroom environments, “especially with large class sizes or when students live far from one another.”
Charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated, have become a contentious issue within the Democratic Party, and Cardona has not taken a strong stance in the school-choice debate. He didn’t at the hearing, either.
When Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) asked Cardona to relay his opinion of charter schools, he walked a neutral line.
Cardona: I recognize there are excellent examples of charter schools. I have seen many in Connecticut. … I also know there are phenomenal examples of neighborhood schools that are also doing great work. My passion is to ensure quality schools, period — making sure that we’re not supporting a system of winners and losers, where if you get into a school you have an opportunity for success but if you don’t get into a school your options lead to a belief that you can’t make it. So for me, I’m a strong proponent of making sure that all schools are quality, where parents want to send their children. Most parents want to send their children to their neighborhood school. It is important to support all schools, including the neighborhood schools that are usually the first choice for families in that community.
He did not express any opinion when Scott asked him what he thought of the only federally funded school voucher program, which is in D.C. and uses taxpayer dollars to help students to attend private and religious schools.
Cardona’s responses on school choice underscored Biden’s stated education priority of improving neighborhood public schools. This is in stark contrast with DeVos’s agenda, which was to expand alternatives to publicly funded neighborhood schools.
Cardona was asked to discuss the conditions under which he thinks schools can reopen during the coronavirus pandemic, one of the most hotly debated issues in the country right now.
Burr: On January 12th, the Fairfax Education Association in Virginia tweeted at you that schools should not reopen until all staff and students had received a vaccine. Do you agree with the Fairfax Education Association on this?
(Actually, the association said it was misunderstood on that stance and was not expecting students to receive a vaccine before schools can reopen. There is no approved vaccine for young people, in any case.)
Cardona: Thank you, senator. You know, I recognize the frustration and distrust and fear that is out there, and if confirmed as secretary of education, I’ll do everything in my power to make sure that our rollout strategy for reopening schools includes communication on how to safely reopen schools. And I think that needs to include increased surveillance testing for our educators and prioritization of our educators for vaccination.
Cardona made clear, as Biden has, that he believes schools can’t safely reopen without sufficient health precautions and the establishment of coronavirus testing programs.
He said Congress should prioritize helping schools open and help students weather the fallout of the pandemic, not just academically but in every way.
Burr: But to safely reopen a school, you don’t need 100 percent of the participants to be vaccinated to do so?
Cardona: We have many great examples of schools throughout the country that were able to reopen safely and do so while following mitigation strategies. While I recognize that is the case, I do believe that … surveillance testing is something we must focus on as well.
This conversation came on the same day that Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said schools can safely reopen without all teachers being vaccinated.
“There is increasing data to suggest that schools can safely reopen and that safe reopening does not suggest that teachers need to be vaccinated,” she said.
But later in the day, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said those comments were not “official guidance” from the CDC.
CORRECTION: Removing quote incorrectly attributed to Sen. Murray.
Watch the hearing: