Unlike Betsy DeVos, Miguel Cardona Says Undocumented Students 'Should Get an Education While They Are Here'

Miguel Cardona started out as a public school teacher, was later named Principal of the Year in Connecticut, and eventually served as the state's education commissioner before being confirmed as the next Secretary of Education. Newsweek spoke to him about the challenges facing the American education system as the country emerges from the pandemic.

Newsweek: When you think about the legacy of the pandemic, one of the enduring memories will be school closures, the way parent's and student's lives were upended, having to figure out remote learning and childcare. American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten said she wants to see schools opened for five days a week of in-person learning, and you tweeted in support of her view. Can you share with the audience your stance on opening schools this fall?

What I retweeted or what I supported was the fact that a lot of people are saying teachers don't want schools open, but that's absolutely not the case. Teachers want schools open safely.

I had a meeting with the entire staff yesterday and I was sharing with them that last June to July in Connecticut we had to make a tough decision. We had to make a decision based on a minuscule set of data around transmission rates because the pandemic was two or three months old. We were looking at flu transmission rates and how it spreads to make decisions on how we're thinking about reopening schools.

You know, I'm a father, right? Whatever decision I made back then it was going to impact my kids, it's going to affect my wife who worked in the school. But we made the decision, working with our health partners, that if we follow the mitigation strategy there's always going to be a risk when you walk out of your house, but we can reduce the risk to provide an opportunity for them to be in school in person.

So that was June of 2020, it's now May 2021. I'm at the point now where I'm feeling that with all the data we have—the science and transmission rates—with the president's push on vaccinations, with what we know about COVID-19, it's our obligation to give students an in-person option.

Last June, I was like, "Let's do this, parents. If you don't want to do it, we respect your decision. We're not going to judge, this is unchartered territory." A year later, we know enough about it to ease the fears and provide safe learning environments for students to learn and educators to work. So I doubled down on my language and my expectation on [reopening all schools] because without it some kids are coming in more than others and gaps are getting worse, so we have an obligation to call that out and address it.

Newsweek: A recent AFT, NAACP, LULAC poll found that while 73% of parents are comfortable with in-person learning this fall, only 59% of Black parents are similarly comfortable. With your commitment to equity and making sure no families feel left behind, how do you go about squaring this? What do you do if parents of color are hesitant to have their kids return to school?

I appreciate that question. There are three big buckets right there. Number one, in Black and Brown communities and dense communities, the impact hit harder. So in some communities, people know somebody that might've gotten it and they're fine. In urban communities or Black and Brown communities, I know people that have died from it. I've seen the impact that it had on Black and Brown families. And there's an increased level of trauma.

Number two, the hybrid model is not an option for families who can't work from home. So there's a level of inconvenience for some of these families who can't say yes to in-person learning on Monday and Wednesday week one, on Tuesday and Thursday week two. It doesn't work, it's all or nothing.

So there's a level of inflexibility that the hybrid provides for working families in many of our Black and Brown communities. Number three, there's a level of concern, "I'm not ready to send my children back." As a matter of fact, I've heard from some families, "my kids are doing better. They were having issues in school before. I didn't feel like that school was embracing them before, I'm not rushing to send them back." That's a smaller number, but the convenience and the fact that they've experienced trauma in a different way, we need to respect that and address that with different strategies.

Newsweek: During your first speech as President Biden's nominee for education secretary you said you're bilingual and bicultural: "As American as apple pie and rice and beans." How does your background inform the kind of leader you are and the way you view the American education system?

Being bicultural and bilingual gave me an opportunity growing up to code switch, culture switch, understanding how people do things differently, but it doesn't mean badly. If anything, you add value to the conversation. So I chose those words, "As American, as apple pie and rice and beans" to illustrate the beauty of this country, the richness of this country, is it's diversity, right?

My lived experience allows me to come here and look at things from different perspectives, but also to understand how important it is to embrace that. Especially as we come back from what I perceive to be a time in our country's history where we've seen greater division and greater separation. We need to be intentional about embracing differences under one flag, under one purpose.

Newsweek: As we analyze the present and look to the future, in 2000, students in the U.S. were only 16% Latino, but now more than 1 in 4 students in K-12 are Hispanic. That means that Latino education is increasingly U.S. education when it comes to preparing America's kids for the future. What does that mean for how you approach improving the education system?

I guess it reminds me of some of the conversations I've had with educators and principals and superintendents in my career. Every teacher is an "EL" teacher, English-learners are part of the schools. They're such a big part of the schools now that looking at it almost as if it's a separate department is an antiquated mental model. We need to look at it as every school needs to be experts in how to teach the English language and understand the culture of the students that they're serving. And because that's such a growing number, it's really important that we think about how we're providing opportunities for our Latino students to look at themselves as educators.

We have to make sure that we're acknowledging the contributions of Latinos so that students see themselves in the curriculum and are more engaged in their learning. Going back to that quote, it's an American thing, they're American. So it's really important that we recognize—people like me —we're second generation, we embrace our Latino-ness, but I was born here. So it's this whole foreignness to it and we need to really rethink how we're looking at it.

Newsweek: One recent change you made from the Trump era was making undocumented and international college students eligible to receive pandemic relief grants, lifting a controversial ban from your predecessor Betsy DeVos. But what do you say to people who say, "My family isn't undocumented or international, so why should they get this type of benefit during a pandemic?"

It's about recovery for our country, right? And the pandemic didn't discriminate. It didn't discriminate against students. So when we're talking about lifting our country back, we also need to make sure that "all" means "all." That all students are able to benefit from it. So that's why the policy turned out that way.

Newsweek: Betsy DeVos would not affirm the 1982 case Plyler vs. Doe that said undocumented children are entitled to a public school education. I take it you do?

I believe all means all. So when there are students that are here that need to be educated, we have an obligation. Whether or not that means they have different rights, I'll leave that to others. But when it comes to education, every student should get an education when they're here.

Newsweek: Some people with school-aged children are wondering how you're going to make up for all of the lost learning due to COVID-19. Do you worry the lost learning could compound racial disparities in learning and achievement?

What I do know is that the recovery from the pandemic hasn't been equal. What I do know is that more Black and Brown or Asian students are remote learning. So it has compounded with them and the learning recovery has to be proportionate to the learning loss.

So the American Rescue Plan recovery strategies need to take into account the uneven disruption that we've experienced. But keep in mind, prior to the pandemic, there were gaps in outcomes. There were gaps in opportunities. So not only do I want it to serve the recovery, but I want it to kind of redefine how we look at equity across the country.

Newsweek: You launched a major outreach campaign to 6.5 million Pell Grant recipients providing a monthly discount on broadband internet service under a temporary FCC program. You said "the pandemic has magnified issues of internet access and affordability for both K-12 students and college students, particularly students of color, students in rural or tribal communities, and students from low-income families." Can you talk about the similarities between low-income families in urban and rural areas and how reliable internet access is a lifeblood of learning in 2021 and beyond?

We say that the laptop is the new pencil, the connectivity is no longer a privilege. It's no longer a cool thing to have. I know from my own children, if they didn't have connectivity, not only would they not be able to access basic learning, but parents wouldn't have any way to communicate with the school, especially during the pandemic. What I learned was our rural community was hit the hardest.

Going back to the rescue plan, when I say some students were hit harder, we need to include students in rural communities where their only access to school would be through the internet. And when we have two or three kids sitting at home using the diminished bandwidth, how much learning has actually taken place, how much interaction is taking place?

This is a finite problem though, we should be able to fix this. It was magnified by the pandemic, but we know now what we need to do and the funding is there.

One of the priorities within Connecticut was closing the digital divide, right? So we were one of the first states that worked with our governor and private funders who put money down on the table and said let's take care of this. We bought thousands of laptops. We were talking to Dell and their manufacturers directly. We were tracking when they were loading boxes into the rigs, when they were landing in Connecticut, when we could get the bus routes in the hardest hit communities to make sure those computers were in the hands of kids as soon as possible. We knew how important the digital divide was in Connecticut and we closed it, and now it's time to do that across the country.

Newsweek: You have said classroom lessons should function as a "window, a mirror, and a sliding door" so children can see themselves reflected in what they're being taught. From the 1619 Project, which Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell assailed in a letter to you, to ethnic studies classes which have been attacked for years, what level of importance do you give to teaching a diverse view of history that may have partisan detractors?

It was Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop that coined that term "windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors." I want to give her credit.

As a Latino growing up, I learned about Benjamin Banneker through [rapper] KRS-One. I learned as much about Black history from Nas and KRS-One than I did from any book I picked up. It wasn't until I found a Puerto Rico course in college that I learned about my own roots. That's unacceptable. Then we wonder why kids are not engaged in school, why children of color don't see themselves.

I was having a conversation at dinner last night with Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, and we were talking about Native Americans, indigenous culture, and how students don't see themselves, or they're omitted from the books.

It's almost like a devaluing of our students. I argue it's as important for a white student to learn about the diverse cultures, diverse history of our country, as it is for students that are Latino or that have that culture. It's good for everyone.

It's becoming partisan because it's very hard to find anything else to complain about when we're putting billions of dollars into our schools to help schools reopen. When we're talking about providing four years of additional schooling for free, because we know community college graduates have 21% higher earning potential. We know that a foundation of quality programs for three- and four-year-olds addresses disparities that are exacerbated in the elementary and middle school years. So to be honest with you, it's disappointing that it has come to that.

I was born rich, but I didn't have a lot of material possessions. And it was through hardworking parents who thrust us into the middle class, my father was able to become a police officer. I was able to benefit from the public school system and the state college system, and now serve as secretary of education. I take pride in this country and what this country offered to me.

But I also recognize there's so many students that need to see themselves so they can realize the American dream. This is not a partisan issue. I think the beauty of our country is how we are from all different places and where we come together. Yes, there's history that we're not proud of, but to think we can omit it, what we're doing is just adding salt to the wound for students who are opening books and don't see anyone that looks like them with their accomplishments.

miguel cardona
Miguel Cardona speaks after President-Elect Joe Biden announced his nomination for Education Secretary at the Queen theatre on December 23, 2020 in Wilmington, Delaware. Cardona, the Connecticut Education Commissioner, will face the urgent task of planning to reopen schools safely during the COVID-19 pandemic. Joshua Roberts/Getty Images