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Photo illustration of Miguel Cardona and Virginia Foxx

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona (left) and North Carolina representative Virginia Foxx (right)

Photo illustration by Justin Morrison/Inside Higher Ed | Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images | Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post via Getty Images

In what may have been Miguel Cardona’s final appearance before the House Education and Workforce Committee—pending election results in November—Representative Virginia Foxx, the North Carolina Republican who chairs the committee, made sure to let the education secretary immediately know what she thought of his time at the agency.

“You have presided over the greatest decline of educational attainment and institutional legitimacy in the history of our nation,” Foxx said. “Moreover, your refusal to work with this Committee during this utter collapse has been inexcusable … On all the broad strokes, you have a failing grade.”

Foxx’s opening remarks Tuesday set the tone for a contentious and lengthy hearing. The secretary faced a barrage of critical questions about his department’s handling of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, its response to a wave of protests and encampments roiling college campuses, its recently finalized rule overhauling Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 to expand protections to LGBTQ+ students, and debt-relief policies that have forgiven $160 billion in student loans for 4.6 million Americans.

Through it all, Cardona defended his department’s policies and stuck to his talking points, frustrating Republicans. On Title IX, he said, “you cannot pick and choose which students you want to protect.” On FAFSA, he pointed out that the department was tasked with overhauling a 40-year-old system. And when asked about campus protests and rising antisemitism, he reiterated multiple times that “hate has no place in our schools.”

In his own opening remarks, Cardona said he wanted to talk about the President’s budget request for fiscal year 2025 and hoped to find common ground with lawmakers.

“To be clear: [my purpose here] is not to create a spectacle for the benefit of the media—or to provoke divisions that inflame culture wars and political sideshows but do nothing to help our young people succeed,” Cardona said.

Still, Republicans on the committee tried over and over again to draw out the secretary on politically charged issues. For example, in her first crack at questioning Cardona, Foxx asked whether protesters on college campuses who block Jewish students from going to class should be eligible for student loan forgiveness programs. When Cardona didn’t directly answer, she asked whether he would commit to ensuring that students who break the law don’t receive forgiveness.

“I’m committed to making sure that campuses are safe,” Cardona replied.

The minority Democrats on the committee, meanwhile, used their question time to tout many of the Biden administration’s policies, including changes to fix the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, and gave Cardona time to defend the Title IX changes and outline how his agency was working to address the issues with the FAFSA.

While most of the discussion focused on the new FAFSA, Title IX and protests, the wide-ranging hearing also touched on enforcement of a federal law that requires colleges to report foreign donations, leadership of the Office of Federal Student Aid, regulatory proposals regarding distance education and textbook pricing, and support for students affected by college closures.

But even on these less-charged issues, consensus between the majority Republicans and Cardona was sorely lacking. And as the session continued, both sides grew more frustrated.

‘It’s Not Working’

Throughout the hearing, Republicans repeatedly asked Cardona to answer yes-or-no questions, such as whether he condemned calls for colleges to cut ties with Hillel Intentional, a Jewish campus organization. When he rejected the framing of those questions, lawmakers cut him off or talked over him, especially as their patience wore thin. Cardona pushed back when he could.

The secretary told Representative Tim Walberg, a Michigan Republican, the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights is “woefully understaffed” to handle its current caseload, which has increased in recent months following the start of the Israel-Hamas war. So far, the department is investigating 145 complaints into alleged discrimination that’s prohibited under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Walberg wanted Cardona to commit to proactively open compliance reviews into institutions not already under investigation.

“We’ve done more in the last six, seven months than the previous administration did in four years—,” Cardona said before Walberg cut him off.

“It’s not working from what we’ve seen in the last two weeks,” Walberg told him.

“If you fund us, sir—” Cardona cut in, but Walberg kept talking over him.

The president’s budget for fiscal year 2025 includes an extra $22 million for the Office for Civil Rights to hire more investigators. House Republicans in recent years have proposed flat-funding or cutting OCR’s budget.

Representative Bobby Scott of Virginia, the committee’s ranking Democrat, criticized his Republican colleagues for their proposals over the years to cut OCR’s budget. “Because complaining about a problem is not a solution,” he said, echoing other comments from Democrats during the hearing. “At the end of the day, if we want to reduce rising tensions on college campuses, we need to advance meaningful legislation to actually address the problem.”

While Democrats mostly lobbed softball questions at Cardona, Republicans continued to try and get him to take controversial positions. Representative Kevin Kiley, a California Republican, wanted to get Cardona on the record condemning the encampments that students have erected on college campuses, along with protesters’ calls to end study abroad programs to Israel. Cardona deferred to guidance from the department’s Office for Civil Rights and declined to directly answer.

“My responsibility under Title VI is to enforce with the Office for Civil Rights violations of Title VI,” Cardona said.

That wasn’t good enough for Kiley.

“No, no, no, Mr. Secretary, you’ve been very outspoken on a number of issues, so I’m asking your view: Do you think that’s appropriate for universities to cede to demands of those in encampments and actually change policies towards Israel in response?”

Again, Cardona deflected. “I think it’s my responsibility to be very clear that we will not accept the hate on campus, and we stand against that,” he said.

FAFSA: ‘We Take This Very Seriously’

While Republicans saved their sharpest attacks for Title IX, debt relief and campus protests, lawmakers from both parties expressed concern about the launch of the new FAFSA, which has been beset with delays and technical glitches. If not for the protests and encampments, FAFSA likely would’ve been the focus of the hearing. But there wasn’t time for a barrage of questions about the crisis, which has consumed the department in recent weeks and already led to the resignation of one senior administrator.

Cardona’s apologies for the delays didn’t end the questions about whether he takes responsibility for the bungled launch. Representative Glenn Grothman, a Wisconsin Republican, asked Cardona if there have been consequences yet for anyone at the department as a result of the FAFSA issues.

“We take this very seriously, and it’s concerning to us that there were delays,” Cardona said. “Yes, there will be opportunities not only for accountability but also restructuring to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

Before the hearing, a bipartisan group of leading lawmakers in the House and Senate sent Cardona a letter outlining their concerns that the aid application cycle for next academic year will face similar issues. The department has yet to release a draft FAFSA, which is typically done in February and March. The letter signaled that Congress is planning to be more involved in the next FAFSA cycle after a largely hands-off approach.

“The department has told our staff that it is not ready to talk about next year or any new plans to add more substantive consumer testing, which would help prevent future errors,” the lawmakers wrote.

In the letter, the lawmakers, including those in charge of the department’s purse strings, requested weekly updates on the timeline for the FAFSA beginning in June, as well as a list of errors or issues with the form by July 8. By Sept. 9, the lawmakers want to see a beta version of the online application.

Cardona has said in multiple hearings, including Tuesday’s, that he expects the form to be ready by Oct. 1, but has yet to detail what the department plans to do differently to ensure a smooth launch. Lawmakers on the House committee were skeptical of his commitment, asking why they should believe him.

“I said before, and I’ll repeat it again, I’m making sure that the staff knows this is the highest priority, and that it’s my expectation that on October 1, it’s ready,” Cardona told Representative Brandon Williams, a New York Republican.

Williams followed up, asking, “Do you have the authority to make things happen in your department?”

“Yes,” Cardona said.

“You’re certain?” Williams asked.

“The answer was yes,” Cardona replied.

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