Cardona, appearing at a confirmation hearing, also affirmed his view that schools should reopen for in-person classes, said teacher vaccinations are not a prerequisite for reopening and said he supports high-quality charter schools.
Cardona won support from leaders of both parties on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, and Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said she would schedule a vote soon.
Cardona broke little new ground Wednesday. He said that the coronavirus pandemic had laid bare long-standing inequities in education and vowed to take them on and “forge opportunity out of this crisis.”
In May, the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights threatened to withhold federal funding to Connecticut, saying the state’s decision to include transgender athletes in high school sports violated Title IX laws.
Under questioning from Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Cardona said it was important — and legally mandated — to give transgender students the same opportunities as other students.
“I think that it’s critically important to have education systems and educators respect the rights of all students, including students who are transgender, and that they are afforded the opportunities that every other student has to participate in extracurricular activities,” Cardona said.
Paul pushed back, using all his allotted time on the issue and repeatedly referring to transgender girls as boys.
He said it was inherently unfair for “boys” to compete in girls athletics and suggested cisgender girls were losing the chance to win meets and college scholarships.
“It would completely destroy girls athletics. The girls are being pushed out,” he said. He invoked the idea of physically large students who were born biologically male competing against smaller girls. “Some boy that’s 6-foot-2 competing against my 5-foot-4 niece doesn’t sound very fair. I think most people in the country think it’s bizarre. . . . And you’re going to run the Department of Education and you’ve got no problem with it? That concerns me.”
Connecticut is one of only a handful of states that allow students to participate in sports based on their gender identity. That policy prompted a lawsuit from three cisgender female high school athletes who complained that transgender girls are biologically male and that their inclusion in competition was therefore unfair.
Litigation on this issue is also pending in Idaho.
Cardona, education commissioner in Connecticut, said he had spoken with people on both sides of the issue in his state and appreciated the concerns but said schools are legally barred from discrimination based on gender identity.
Two other Republicans voiced support for Paul’s position: Mitt Romney of Utah and Roger Marshall of Kansas.
Biden has spoken out strongly for transgender rights. One of his first acts was to repeal the Trump administration’s ban on transgender personnel serving openly in the U.S. military.
Cardona won backup from Murray, the panel’s chair, who said schools must provide safe environments for all students, including transgender students.
Cardona, who pushed hard to reopen schools in Connecticut, said Wednesday that it was important that “we’re doing everything in our power to safely reopen schools.”
“There is no substitute for a classroom experience for our students, being in front of their teacher,” he said.
He also said that teachers, including private-school teachers, should be prioritized for the coronavirus vaccine but that vaccinating teachers is not required for reopening.
That same point was made Wednesday at a White House coronavirus briefing by Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Vaccination of teachers is not a prerequisite for safe reopening of schools,” she said.
On other matters, Cardona said he supports relief for federal borrowers but did not commit to using administrative authority to cancel debt, as liberal advocates would like. Biden has said he would like Congress to do this legislatively.
Cardona voiced support for charter schools, saying there are excellent charters as well as excellent neighborhood schools. “My passion really is to ensure quality schools, period,” he said.
And he said fully funding special-education services, as the federal government has for years failed to do, “would be a game-changer for public education.”
Danielle Douglas-Gabriel and Lena H. Sun contributed to this report.