Biden’s Education Department Expected to Prioritize Educational Equity

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Photo of the White House in Washington, D.C.

Incoming Education Secretary Miguel Cardona and his predecessor Betsy DeVos could not, in many ways, be more opposite. While DeVos comes from an extremely wealthy White family, Cardona was raised by middle class parents from Puerto Rico. DeVos is a staunch advocate for school choice, while Cardona attended public K-12 schools and colleges — including Central Connecticut State University, where he became the first college graduate in his family. Cardona spent decades as a teacher and principal, while one of the greatest criticisms against DeVos was that she had never worked in a classroom.

The stark contrast between Cardona and DeVos extends to their views on equal rights in schools, student debt, and many other pressing issues. Now, as President Joe Biden seeks to reverse or override national laws and guidelines put in place by his predecessor President Donald Trump, Cardona is faced with a similar goal within the U.S. Department of Education.

Biden has said that Cardona understands “that education isn’t just what we do, it’s who we are.” Critics of the new education secretary, however, have said that he is too inexperienced when it comes to politics, as his highest post has been serving as Education Commissioner for Connecticut — a role he’s held for less than two years.

Others have accused Cardona of being too diplomatic rather than taking a decisive stance on certain issues. During his Senate confirmation hearing on February 3, Cardona was asked if he supports allowing transgender students to play sports that align with their gender identity rather than assigned sex. He replied that he would “make sure we’re following the civil rights of all students.” Connecticut, however, does allow transgender students to play on sports teams that correspond with their gender. Biden’s strong stance on LGBTQ rights also indicates that Cardona will take steps to promote transgender equality, including when it comes to controversial issues such as school bathroom laws.

Much of the current conversation around education has focused on pandemic-related challenges. Cardona’s messages to the public have centered on this issue, especially as it affects K-12 students. He strongly supports reopening schools as quickly as possible in order to close the education gap that has primarily affected low-income students during the pandemic, which he has called an “education emergency.”

Improving educational equity overall is one of Cardona’s top concerns. As state education commissioner, he was “a fierce advocate for Connecticut’s most vulnerable children — those with disabilities, children in low-income families, and English language learners.— as he pushed for schools to reopen,” according to NPR.

Experts say these priorities align with Biden’s mission to promote racial equity and is a signal that Cardona will focus on assessing higher education’s impact on social mobility. Jennifer Grodsky, vice president for federal relations at Boston University, told the university’s news service BU Today that the Biden administration will likely prioritize supporting historically Black colleges and universities as well as institutions that have large numbers of underserved students of color, such as community colleges. Biden may increase oversight of colleges and universities when it comes to equity in graduation rates and admissions policies as well as student debt-to-income ratios, according to Grodsky.

The student debt crisis is one of Biden and Cardona’s greatest challenges. There is increasing pressure on Biden to live up to his promises of loan forgiveness, but experts say that if the Education Department does decide to forgive a portion of federal education debt, it will take time to implement.

Cardona is expected to reverse DeVos’  Title IX guidelines for campus sexual assault. Her decision to reverse Obama-era guidelines that had increased colleges’ responsibility for addressing sexual violence was one of the most controversial actions during her tenure as secretary. Experts say Cardona will likely eradicate DeVos’ policies or enact new ones that restore certain rights for survivors and increase college accountability.

Cardona is also expected to improve educational equity for immigrants and undocumented students. Biden’s swift reversal of Trump-era regulations on the Muslim travel ban and other immigration issues is a sign that his administration will be more welcoming to international students. His support of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — or DACA — program aligns with Cardona’s views on the importance of supporting English language learner students. Potential changes could include more aid to undocumented students and the colleges and universities that enroll them.

Cardona, whose first language is Spanish, has said that he empathizes with students from similar backgrounds because he “struggled with his own identity growing up,” according to NPR. However, he learned to embrace his Latinx heritage and now sees it as a strength when it comes to serving an increasingly multicultural country. Upon his nomination as Education Secretary, Cardona stated “I, being bilingual and bicultural, am as American as apple pie and rice and beans.”

Mariah Bohanon is the senior editor of INSIGHT Into Diversity. This article was published in our March 2021 issue.