Q&A: My conversation with the US Secretary of Education, Miguel Cardona

Credit: Twitter / SecCardona

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona with students in Los Angeles on July 14, 2021.

As I shook hands with US Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona this week, I felt a sense of familiarity reminiscent of what I imagine students feel when they meet an educator with a common background.

Hearing my last name, which I pronounce as spoken in Spanish (VAHS-kes), Cardona returned the sentiment (MEE-gel Ca-Donah). During that brief moment, so many unsaid: Cardona, a child of Puerto Rican immigrants who grew up in a Spanish-speaking home, and I, the daughter of Cuban immigrants who have long since perfected the art of Spanish, have changed code.

It is these little connections – real and perceived – that can make a classroom attractive to students. This is, in part, why Cardona visited Fairfax High School in Los Angeles – to promote positive relationship building through mentorship and community volunteering, which is at the center of the Ready Set initiative, launched by the Creative Artists Agency Foundation and the US Department of Education.

Cardona caught up with EdSource for a brief conversation to discuss the pressing education issues facing California and the nation as schools slowly emerge from a pandemic that continues to evolve.

The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Do you think there will come a time when Covid vaccinations will be mandatory for K-12 students?

It could be probable. I don’t have a say on that at the moment. I want to trust my health experts to make these decisions. They have done a hell of a job so far, helping us guide the reopening efforts. In Connecticut, we wouldn’t have reopened without a close partnership with health experts. So I have confidence in them and in their ability to decide to demand it if that is what they decide. But without a doubt, the best strategy for safe schools to reopen is to make sure vaccines are available to everyone who is eligible. In communities where they are not as heavily vaccinated, we see more disease. We are seeing more hospital visits. You just have to get the message across to those who are still hesitant.

Where do you think school districts should spend new relief dollars when it comes to closing the learning gap between students, which has widened during the pandemic?

Fairness and stakeholder engagement is something we want to see in the plans. We know the pandemic has made matters worse, right? The gaps were there before. I was talking to teachers earlier today, and they were telling me that some communities have so much more than others. And it only got worse. The (American) bailout is helping level the playing field. So what I want to see is making sure that all students have access to in-person learning, have access to small classes for children. students with disabilities, who suffered more than most other groups of students. Let’s make sure we’re doing what’s right for our students, giving them the support they need, the technology they need. For those students – like children with autism – who need a little more tutoring, let’s make sure that when they come back we have a special education program that works well because the funds are there. That’s what I expect we will have this in the fall.

There are those who fear spending the one-time windfall on programs that cannot be supported. How do you respond to these concerns?

We are emerging from a crisis. Our children are suffering. They need help now. And we have to give them what they need now. It also means that some of these things might look different now than they are four years from now. I may speak to a YMCA boys and girls club to partner with our schools for two or three years and use the funding to support that. Or we’re going to speed up our wrap-around services, and we’re going to provide a wide network for families, not just students, because if families are okay, then students will be okay.

We must do more for families, give them more opportunities to re-engage access to mental health for students who need it. And we’ll get better. But we also need innovative leadership that thinks about sustainability, but also bold leadership to say, “What don’t we need in four years? What can we give up? We were fortunate enough to hit the reset button. What do we want to focus on? I hope the social and emotional well-being of students will be higher on this list.

There has been a lot of talk about helping university students with fees other than tuition. Do you think doubling the Pell Grant is a good idea?

I have been an educator for over 20 years and have never seen an investment. It is always “Doing more with less”. … There is a $ 1,400 increase in Pell Grants with the American Families Plan. The budget includes an additional $ 400, which is more than an increase of $ 1,800 for Pell. The president, I think, has more than a down payment to make sure we increase Pell and give more opportunities to students, not to mention the ability to have a community college for everyone – for free. This is something the president is committed to. In terms of access, the (American) Families Plan does more to provide access, whether through community colleges or the Pell, than anything I have ever seen as an educator.

The government this week announced a temporary relaxation of the verification process related to Pell Grants. This process seems to be a pressure point for so many under-represented students when they apply to college. Do you think there will be continued help beyond this year?

Thank you for noticing that, to be very frank with you. We have a responsibility at the agency to do everything in our power to remove barriers and provide access. And sometimes that means looking at our policies and revisiting the “whys” behind our policies and making sure that, after the pandemic, we are helping our students to be successful as much as possible, which means breaking down barriers.

The other area I really want to focus on is civil service loan cancellation. It seems to be one obstacle after another. So we have to make things user-friendly. We have to keep the students at the center, and that’s what we’re trying to do at the agency. Make sure we are student-centered in our access, our policies and how we advocate for our students.

Considering the decline in community college enrollment in California and across the country since the onset of the pandemic, as fall approaches, what do you think colleges should be doing?

When possible, bring students back to class safely. There is no substitute. I recently spoke to a president of an HBCU (historically black colleges and universities) who said their biggest concern was the decline in students. They are working very hard this summer to bring these families and communities to see how the students are doing, first and foremost, because as you know, (a lot of) community college students are parents, working parents. . They have other things going on. Now there are adults who think, “What do I want to do now? They may want to start recycling again.

Community colleges have the funds to do it. Half of the $ 40 billion US college bailout is in direct student aid. This is aimed at bringing these students back and removing not only the tuition fees but also the other barriers that prevent them from entering. I spoke to a community college student who couldn’t go to school without what the college did to help her with tuition, tuition, and some of the other expenses that she did. had to do to go back to school. It works. The funding is there. In person (instruction) is one of the best strategies. Vaccination is another. When colleges administer vaccines to students and give them access to that vaccine and to the community, it is more likely that they will be able to come in person because they will feel safer.

. . .

As we said goodbye, Cardona made a final gesture: “Who dates, he said in Spanish, asking me to take care of myself. For a nation of students who increasingly come from a multitude of cultural backgrounds, having a senior official redefining what is common is powerful.

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