Biden's Education secretary must seize the bully pulpit — and quickly

Biden's Education secretary must seize the bully pulpit — and quickly
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President Biden’s nominee for Education secretary appeared before the Senate’s education committee today. Miguel CardonaMiguel CardonaBiden's Education Department must choose accountability or a 'Marbury v. Madison' moment Biden administration cancels .6M in student loan debt for fraud victims CDC encourages schools to open for in-person learning MORE was asked about his stance on issues such as federal support for student civil rights and charter schools. The most pressing questions were centered on the pandemic: Under what circumstances should schools reopen? How much federal aid is needed? How should standardized testing be managed after months of lost learning?

Cardona’s answers are critical to families whose schools have been shuttered for nearly a year. But it's Cardona's leadership skills that senators should be most focused on. How strongly will Cardona advocate for America’s children, particularly when adult interests such as teacher unions push in the opposite direction? The secretary of Education doesn't have authority to open or close schools; that falls to states and localities. But he does have a bully pulpit, and he should use it forcefully to support state and local officials struggling to reengage kids in learning.

Previous Education secretaries under Democratic presidents have forcefully used their voices to support education reforms. Richard Riley’s “America Reads Challenge” during the Clinton administration and Arne DuncanArne Starkey DuncanStripping opportunity from DC's children Catherine Lhamon will make our schools better, fairer, and more just Providing the transparency parents deserve MORE’s “Race to the Top” competition during the Obama administration come to mind. The challenges of this moment are even more daunting. 

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Advocates have watched, with increasing despair, isolated kids being jerked around by school districts that are failing in their central responsibility. Frustrated parents in every corner of the nation are organizing to pressure them to do their duty: @ReopenWcpss (Wake County, North Carolina), @SchoolIsessent2 (Bellevue, Washington), @OpenDCSchools (Washington, D.C.), @ReopenSFUSD (San Francisco) and @angrybklynmom (New York City) are just a few social media accounts rallying parents. They’ve also protested in person from Roswell, New Mexico, to Nashua, New Hampshire, and many places in between.

Parent activism is good, but it’s also evidence of a leadership vacuum. 

As of mid-January, 37 states had committed to vaccinating teachers in “phase 1b,” right after frontline health care workers and senior citizens. Support for the plan grew out of demands for vaccines by the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers as a condition for returning to the classroom. Yet the unions are moving the goal posts again.

Explaining why teacher vaccines are insufficient to warrant reopening, the California Teachers Association points to a lack of evidence that the vaccine alone eliminates or reduces transmissions. 

And by and large, public officials are letting unions dog walk them. California Gov. Gavin NewsomGavin NewsomJudge clears way for Larry Elder to appear on California recall ballot Caitlyn Jenner pledges to support Trump if he makes another bid for the White House Harris says she will campaign for Newsom in California recall election MORE says he's given no consideration to forcing schools to reopen if teacher unions refuse to move ahead with in-person instruction after their vaccinations. Chicago’s mayor, after spending $100 million to ensure safe buildings and issuing ultimatums in response to the Chicago Teachers Union’s strike threat, has repeatedly caved to union muscle. So far, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy has let districts make their own decisions; most are closed.

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Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont – and Cardona, his education commissioner – did the same, but pushed hard for districts to remain open for at least hybrid teaching. Lamont said that superintendents who refused would be subject to “a really forceful discussion.” One would hope that Cardona remembers that when he gets to Washington.

In an interview with National Public Radio earlier this month, Cardona made it clear that he does not see it as the Education secretary's job – or even within the secretary's authority – to force school districts to adopt science-based strategies (which would permit a return to the classroom), including requiring teachers and students to wear masks. The department's role "is really to support states who are working to develop policies. . . to safely reopen schools," Cardona said. Answering questions on the topic during Wednesday’s hearing, Cardona again emphasized the theme of providing guidance on effective policies.

That’s not enough. This is a historic crisis. Federal guidance (after the malpractice committed by the previous administration) is vital. But equally important is an Education secretary who will put students first by using his bully pulpit to order adult-centered organizations to get serious about educating students or be prepared for some kind of consequence — and then be prepared to execute on consequences. Parents and their children can no longer go it alone without a die-hard advocate to support them. Senate committee members on both sides of the aisle must ensure Biden’s nominee is up to that task.

Tressa Pankovits is associate director of Reinventing America’s Schools at the Progressive Policy Institute.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this column stated that the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers (FCFT) said that teachers wouldn’t return until students are vaccinated. That is incorrect – FCFT has not stated a position on vaccines.