This column first appeared in The Amendment, a new biweekly newsletter by Errin Haines, The 19th’s editor-at-large. Subscribe today to get early access to future analysis.
Republicans have spent most of the Biden administration dominating the conversation around parents’ and students’ rights, history, and college admissions. Now Education Secretary Miguel Cardona seems like he’s ready to go on offense.
Last week, he brought the fight to Alabama, a red state with a complicated racial history, and I sat down with him at the National Association of Black Journalists’ annual convention in Birmingham.
Cardona, a veteran educator and father of two, has increasingly waded into the fray in recent weeks. In response to GOP attacks on public education and the Supreme Court rulings on affirmative action and student loan debt, he has responded with policy — where the department has the power to — and rhetoric.
As I’ve written, education, a perennial priority of presidential election cycles for voters, is on the ballot and being politicized anew headed into 2024. I wanted to hear from Cardona, particularly as the Education Department’s existence is again being threatened on the campaign trail, about why the agency matters and why Americans should care. It’s an issue we at The 19th will continue to cover: Most teachers are women, most college students are women, and the fights in elementary, middle and high schools are being fought over identity, including race, gender and sexuality.
“I realized I’ve gotta be careful not to give people national platforms for what they’re doing, but focus on what we’re doing,” Cardona told me Thursday. “That’s been my focus and I’m proud of the work we’re doing. But every once in a while, when I hear people spewing and they don’t know what they’re talking about, it’s really important that I speak up, because there are a lot of parents, students, educators that need somebody that’s going to call out hypocrisy and b.s.”
The Biden administration has increasingly confronted GOP attacks on public education in recent weeks, a shift after leaving the public argument with Republicans largely to outside groups.
Vice President Kamala Harris has been among the more prominent voices pushing back against GOP efforts to ban books or avoid or misrepresent the country’s ugly racial past in the classroom. She has taken the fight directly to Florida where the state’s governor, Ron DeSantis, is the most outspoken Republican presidential hopeful on these issues.
A week before we sat down, Cardona addressed the NAACP at its national convention, where he publicly called out Harvard’s legacy admissions policy days after the Education Department announced it was opening a civil rights investigation into the long-held practice. In our interview, he reiterated his disappointment in the ruling striking down affirmative action, calling the Supreme Court’s decision “very bad” but adding that the moment was also an opportunity to rethink college admissions.
“It seems like public education is under attack in many different ways,” Cardona said. “We lost one of the best tools schools had to ensure diversity but this has also galvanized us to have real conversations about college admissions practices. I want Black and brown students to know: We see you, we need you, you make our campuses better. This is a moment for us to push for what we believe is best for kids.”
Cardona said the Education Department had been strategizing in the days leading up to the pair of rulings. Guidance for college presidents on lawful college admissions practices is due within the week, and the administration recently held a summit on educational opportunity with civil rights leaders and educators.
The same day Cardona came to NABJ, he held a news conference with Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin, a Morehouse College alum, where he talked about the “historic underfunding” of HBCUs, and met with presidents of several Alabama HBCUs. The state is home to the largest number of such institutions in the country, and the administration has touted its record support for HBCUs.
In our conversation, he reiterated those efforts but didn’t miss an opportunity to take another swipe at Republicans.
“It’s important to give [HBCUs] a seat at the table, and not just for photo ops – you know what I’m talking about – and then take their feedback as we’re making decisions,” said Cardona, who also announced that the Education Department plans to urge governors in states with HBCU land-grant universities to fulfill their obligations to those institutions and fund them at the same levels as their non-HBCU counterparts. Of the 112 land grant institutions in the country, 19 — nearly 1 in 5 — are historically Black.
The federal government has no role in setting curricula or setting educational or quality standards for schools or colleges. The Department of Education manages federal financial aid, collects data on schools and is supposed to ensure equal access for all students. Much of its power lies in how it uses its bully pulpit to focus attention on key priorities — which can vary depending on the party in power.
Cardona expressed his frustration at state-level efforts to limit what children learn and to marginalize LGBTQ+ youth — and about his limited ability to respond. He said he is “very concerned” about the recent changes to Florida’s curriculum that suggest there was a “personal benefit” to slavery and the potential for further attempts to whitewash our country’s history.
“Before they used to do it in the shadows; now they’re doing it in the sun,” Cardona said. “Nothing that is brought up by the right was new when I was a fourth-grade teacher. But give me substance, don’t just give me division.”
He also talked about the Education Department’s efforts to raise teacher pay and address the teacher shortage, saying, “We’ve allowed martyrdom for teachers. Maybe we do that because 75 percent of them are women. Would we do that if 75 percent of them were men?”
He called on parents and students to make their voices heard in communities.
“As secretary of education, I have less authority over curriculum than I did as commissioner of education in Connecticut, as a district leader, a teacher, and as a principal,” Cardona said. “That concerns me, because as a parent and an educator, I have strong feelings about diversifying the curriculum. To me, we all have a responsibility. So let’s get serious, let’s get organized.”
Cardona sees the department’s role as a civil rights organization and defender of public education — a departure from his predecessors in Republican administrations. The last education secretary, Betsy DeVos, pushed policies in favor of private school education and spoke openly about abolishing the department — something several GOP presidential hopefuls have also brought up already this cycle.
Liz King, who has worked for nearly a decade at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and currently serves as the senior director for education equity, told me the country needs to hear from Cardona “every day” as the country’s leading voice on education.
“Folks are seeing and looking for more,” King said. “We’re always going to push the department to do more. The actions we see are encouraging, the language we hear from Secretary Cardona is encouraging. The call for communities to look away is a minority view held by a small number of people, but they sure are loud. We need our federal government to be louder still.”
Many Americans have long seen education as the Great Equalizer in our democracy, though it has also long been the Great Divider. Those differing perspectives are again at the center of our polarized politics. Supporters of public education are losing ground at the state level and in courts.
Will they respond to this shift to offense from the administration? Will these voters buy the argument that Biden, Harris, Cardona and the rest of the administration can be a firewall against efforts to make education less equal for all?