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Miguel Cardona, President Biden's nominee for education secretary, testifies at his Senate confirmation hearing Wednesday.

Senate education committee

President Biden’s nominee for education secretary, Miguel Cardona, appears to be headed for confirmation by the Senate after a hearing Wednesday free of fireworks, save for whether transgender girls should be competing against cisgender girls in high school sports.

Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina, the top Republican on the Senate education committee, called Cardona “eminently qualified,” as the committee’s hearing for the Connecticut education commissioner came to an end. Burr said he would work with Democrats to “expeditiously” move Cardona's approval through the Senate.

Senator Patty Murray of Washington State, the Democratic chairwoman of the committee, said she would schedule a vote as soon as possible to send Cardona’s nomination before the full Senate.

The hearing was light on specifics. Focusing on Cardona’s rapid ascent from a first-generation immigrant growing up in Connecticut’s housing projects to becoming an elementary school teacher, principal and then the state's top schools official, the hearing was a marked contrast from the contentious questioning Betsy DeVos, education secretary during the Trump administration, faced during her confirmation hearing before the same panel.

Republican senators for the most part lofted questions to Cardona about his commitment to educating rural students, criticizing him mainly for his support for Connecticut’s policy allowing transgender girls to compete in high school athletics alongside their cisgender peers.

The Education Department under DeVos supported a still-pending lawsuit by non-transgender girls challenging Connecticut’s policy. While Cardona did not specifically say whether he will reverse the department’s stance, he said that schools have a legal obligation to give transgender students the opportunity to participate in extracurricular activities.

“A lot of us think that’s bizarre and not very fair,” said Senator Rand Paul, a Republican from Kentucky. “That concerns me. This is what leads the vast majority of Americans to think, ‘What planet are you from?’ Are we going to be OK with a hulking 6-foot-4 guy wrestling girls?”

‘Boldly Address Education Inequities’

“Soy Miguel Cardona,” Biden’s nominee said, introducing himself in his opening remarks. The first in his family to graduate college, he vowed to give others the same opportunity.

“For me education opened doors. That is the promise and the power of America. But it is not a promise kept for every student,” he said. “I will work tirelessly to make sure our educational system is a door to opportunity, a great equalizer for every student.

“We will boldly address education inequities head-on,” he said.

Murray contrasted Cardona’s experience to DeVos's.

“Given Dr. Cardona’s background, there is no question he’s ready for these challenges. And after four years of a secretary of education who had no experience in public education, I’m thrilled to have a nominee before us who is a former elementary school teacher, a former adjunct professor, a former principal and a former assistant superintendent,” Murray said. “As a former preschool teacher myself, I know firsthand how valuable that classroom perspective is when working on these issues.”

And, she added, “Dr. Cardona won’t just bring much-needed teaching experience to the department, but also invaluable personal experience. As an English language learner himself, Dr. Cardona knows that all students can succeed when given access to a high-quality public education. And he has spent his whole career working to ensure every student can reach their full potential, no matter the language they speak, or their ZIP code, income, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or disability.”

Cardona, whose background is in K-12 education, didn’t detail what he plans to do on higher education. But he did express concern over such issues as student debt.

He noted to Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat who has pushed for canceling student loans, that studies show many Black borrowers owing more after 12 years than when they graduated because they have not been able to pay down their balance and have seen interest drive up their balances.

Student debt, Cardona said, “exacerbates the haves and have-nots.” And Warren agreed, “It’s a big hole that keeps getting deeper.”

Warren, who has called on the Biden administration to cancel $50,000 of all borrowers’ debt, told Cardona, “This is a crisis. You are in a unique position to do something about it.”

Asked by Warren if he would do what he could to provide immediate relief to borrowers, Cardona relied, “Yes.”

However, Biden has questioned his ability to cancel debt through executive order, and Cardona didn’t commit to taking any actions in particular.

Burr, meanwhile, urged Cardona not to cancel student debt. "I'm not eager to see the Biden administration pursue dangerous and foolhardy proposals to simply forgive student loans," said Burr. He said he’d oppose “any effort to move debt from borrowers to taxpayers.”

Cardona on several occasions signaled his support for community colleges, noting that they are struggling as the economic toll of the pandemic has driven down enrollment.

“Fewer students started college this fall, and those declines have been most striking at community colleges -- institutions that have long served as entry points for higher education and economic mobility for so many.”

Noting that college has become unaffordable and the buying power of Pell Grants has declined, Cardona stressed the need to create pathways from secondary school to higher education or job training. He noted that allowing high school students to take college-level courses would drive down the cost of attending college.

Still, David Baime, senior vice president for government relations and policy analysis for the American Association of Community Colleges, was encouraged by Cardona's mention of their work. "Community colleges are thrilled that the secretary-designee clearly recognizes their contributions -- in fact, he has referred to them as 'gems,'" Baime said.

Despite the lack of specificity, higher education leaders called on the Senate to confirm Cardona.

“During these challenging times for all of education, including colleges and universities and our students, it is vital to fill this post as quickly as possible. And as we have noted previously, Secretary-Designate Cardona in his past roles as teacher, principal, and Connecticut education commissioner has demonstrated an unflagging dedication to his students and community and been a committed advocate for increasing educational access, equity, and completion,” American Council on Education president Ted Mitchell said in a statement.

Jason Altmire, president of Career Education Colleges and Universities, representing for-profit colleges, called Cardona “eminently qualified.”

“We share his goals of protecting students, holding schools accountable based on student outcomes and using job training as a way to prepare students for the future workforce. There are high- and low-performing schools in every sector, and we hope to partner with Dr. Cardona to ensure that any new regulations bring accountability to all sectors of higher education,” Altmire said. 

Clare McCann, deputy director for federal higher education policy for the progressive think tank,New America, said, “Cardona did really well in today's hearing and sounded informed and knowledgeable about the importance of community colleges and the needs of higher education students.”

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