February 3, 2021, Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions
Questions from Senators touched on topics including a timeline for reopening schools, access for students with disabilities, student loan debt, community colleges, the rights of transgender female athletes, and academic testing requirements. During his opening remarks, Ranking Member Richard Burr (R-NC) indicated that he would be able to support Cardona’s nomination by the end of the hearing.
- Reopening Schools – Ranking Member Burr asked if Cardona agreed with the Fairfax County (Virginia) School District’s statement that schools should not reopen until all students have been vaccinated. Cardona said if confirmed as Education Secretary, he would work to get schools open as soon and as safely as possible, which would include increased surveillance. He noted examples of schools being able to safely reopen without everyone being vaccinated. Ranking Member Burr asked if teachers should be prioritized for the vaccine. Cardona said educators should be prioritized and added that schools need to be constantly testing students and teachers going forward.
- Students with Disabilities – Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) asked how Cardona will ensure students with disabilities have access to post-secondary education and how to ensure those higher-education institutions will be able to serve those students with disabilities. Cardona stated that helping students gain access to higher education requires coordination with the K-12 schools and that the Department of Education would look for best practices across the country where this is happening and where the best results are achieved.
- Student Loan Debt – Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) noted that one in five U.S. adults have student loan debt and 40% of them do not have a college degree. Cardona said when these individuals do not have a college degree, they do not have the income potential which will make the debt much harder to pay off. Sen. Warren asked how student loan debt affects people of color. Cardona said student loan debt disproportionally affects people of color. Sen. Warren mentioned that student loan debt also affects seniors, adding that some have their social security checks garnished. She asked Cardona if he would commit to providing borrowers immediate relief and reform the office of Federal Student Aid so that it works for student borrowers instead of corporations. Cardona said he would commit to both.
- Community Colleges – Several Senators asked about the role community colleges play in helping students receive technical skills to put them on a path to high paying jobs and whether Cardona thought that strengthening career and technical education can help the U.S. economy recover. Cardona agreed that career and technical education are critical in the country’s recovery and high schools must be designed for students to be successful whether that is a four-year university or a more technical education.
- Rights of Transgender Female Athletes – Several Republican Senators pressed Cardona on whether it “bothered” or “worried” him that transgender student athletes were competing in girl’s high school sports. Cardona said the Supreme Court ruled that there cannot be discrimination based on gender and stated, “I think it’s critically important that education systems respect the rights of all students including students who are transgender, and that they are afforded the opportunity that every other student has to participate in extracurricular activities.” Cardona noted he would commit to working with the committee to provide opportunities for all students.
- Academic Testing Requirements – Ranking Member Burr asked Cardona how he would approach the issue of whether states have the right to skip federally mandated standardized tests due to the pandemic. Cardona stated that he was not supportive of a “one size fits all” approach to standardized testing since many students are still out of the physical classroom and said that states should “weigh in on” how they will address testing. He did not specify whether he would grant states waivers to relieve students of these federal requirements. Cardona added that he did not think it made sense for students to come in just to take standardized tests but noted it will be more difficult to assess how students are performing which would make providing targeted support challenging.
Cardona appears to be on track for an easy confirmation, particularly given Ranking Member Burr’s willingness to offer support. While Republicans are pushing the Biden administration and Democrats on the issue of re-opening schools – particularly given that Biden made it a priority for his first 100 days in office – it does not appear that issue will pose a threat to Cardona’s approval.
We expect the HELP Committee to approve Cardona’s nomination on a bipartisan basis, setting up a vote in the Senate. Timetables are a bit unclear, given the multitude of priorities before the Senate.