Miguel Cardona Gets Bipartisan Welcome At Senate Hearing : Biden Transition Updates Miguel Cardona, President Biden's education nominee, appeared before lawmakers on Wednesday for a mostly tame confirmation hearing. His opening message: In unity there is strength.
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Education Pick Miguel Cardona's Message To Lawmakers: 'En La Unión Está La Fuerza'

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Education Pick Miguel Cardona's Message To Lawmakers: 'En La Unión Está La Fuerza'

Education Pick Miguel Cardona's Message To Lawmakers: 'En La Unión Está La Fuerza'

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

President Biden's nominee to be secretary of education took questions from lawmakers today. Miguel Cardona told the Senate education committee that he knows the stakes could not be higher for the next secretary.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIGUEL CARDONA: We're here today in the midst of one of the most challenging school years in American history. For far too many of our students, this year has piled on crisis after crisis.

CHANG: This was Cardona's first big moment in the national spotlight. NPR's Cory Turner was watching and joins us now.

Hey, Cory.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: Hey. So remind us real quick how Miguel Cardona got to this moment.

TURNER: Yes. So most recently, he was Connecticut's state education commissioner the past year and a half. Before that, he lived and worked as a public school educator in the town where he grew up. His parents moved from Puerto Rico to Meriden, Conn. It's an old factory town. Since starting there as a fourth-grade teacher, he has worked really at every level of education as a teacher, a principal, an assistant superintendent and, finally, as a state education leader.

CHANG: Wow. Well, with such a closely divided Senate, I'm curious, what was the reception like for Cardona?

TURNER: Well, first off, Cardona himself came in really pleading for unity. Here's what he told lawmakers in his opening remarks.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CARDONA: As the saying in Spanish goes, (speaking Spanish). In unity, there is strength.

TURNER: And that set the tone for what was generally a pretty friendly and, at times, admiring hearing. The ranking Republican, Richard Burr, called Cardona eminently qualified. He encouraged his colleagues to support him.

There was really only one tense moment, Ailsa, when Kentucky Republican Rand Paul asked Cardona if he supported this Connecticut policy that allows transgender students to participate in sports based on their gender identity. Cardona said repeatedly that it would be his job to protect the rights of all students. Here's Senator Paul.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RAND PAUL: So you don't have a problem then with boys running on the girls track meets - name it. You're OK then with boys competing with girls.

CARDONA: Respectfully, Senator, I think I answered the question. I believe schools should offer the opportunity for students to engage in extracurricular activities even if they're transgender. I think that's their right.

TURNER: It's also worth noting, Ailsa, that two other Republican senators, including Mitt Romney, also voiced frustration with Cardona's position on this issue.

CHANG: Well, President Biden has promised to get schools reopened in his first 100 days in office. What did Cardona have to say about that promise, his ability to ensure that promise?

TURNER: Yeah. Well, he started by pledging to work with the CDC to give school leaders really concrete, science-driven guidance on how to reopen safely. He also said he would help schools build capacity to do surveillance testing. Lots of places - they're not doing much if any of that. He said all teachers should be prioritized for vaccination. He's also said, you know, long before today that he believes closed schools are further widening longstanding educational equity gaps, which is one reason why he pushed hard in Connecticut for schools to reopen. In fact, if you look at that state, roughly half of the districts there were offering largely fully in-person school as of the third week of January.

CHANG: What about student loan debt? Biden has also signaled possible action on student loan debt. Did anything come up about forgiveness of federal student loans?

TURNER: Yeah, it did. And it all revolved, really, around how it could be done because there's debate whether the ed secretary has the authority to just forgive debts unilaterally or if it has to go through Congress. So Republicans made clear today this is not something they want to see done unilaterally. While Democrats led by Elizabeth Warren from Massachusetts - they pushed the other way, saying, you know, he has an obligation to do this. Cardona, for his part, said forgiveness is a priority but that he'd like to work with Congress.

CHANG: That's NPR's Cory Turner.

Thank you, Cory.

TURNER: You're welcome, Ailsa.

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