Content warning: brief mention of sexual assault
Recently inaugurated President Joe Biden has had a tough time getting his cabinet selection confirmed — but not necessarily for ideological reasons. Between the skepticism among staunch Trump supporters about the validity of the election and the second impeachment trial of the 45th President, Biden took office with fewer cabinet confirmations than any other president in the 21st century thus far. A month into his presidency, Biden only had nearly half of his picks confirmed, as compared to previous presidents of the 21st century, who had almost 84% each within the same time frame. Despite the delay, the Senate has now confirmed a majority of Biden’s nominations, clearing the way for various executive departments to overturn Trump-era policies and begin to implement (relatively) progressive policies. There is one cabinet position in particular that all Americans should have their eyes on. Tasked with maintaining and advising the president on matters of education, Dr. Miguel Cardona was confirmed to be the new Secretary of Education in early March. After the extremely publicized and controversial appointment of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education under the Trump administration, Cardona has a lot to fix in light of the actions taken by his predecessor, and the Biden administration can take it even further to enact progressive policies in education.
So, how do DeVos and Cardona differ? Cardona grew up attending public schools and has also spent his whole career working in public education in his home state of Connecticut, unlike DeVos, who had a career in politics after spending her youth in private education. Cardona’s experience in public education and his pride in being “as American as apple pie and rice and beans” are necessary for the growth of the Department of Education. Students and parents across America can now watch someone who knows what it’s like to serve in public education implement strategies that will benefit everybody. DeVos’s lack of experience made it harder for her to truly understand what the schools of America needed. At first glance, Cardona seems like a better fit, but what truly matters are the actions he and the Department of Education will take.
DeVos’s legacy consists of her efforts to dismantle Obama-era policies, which did more damage than good. She pandered to American conservatives by advocating on behalf of religious private schools, ultimately hurting our public schools by redirecting millions of dollars that should have gone towards public education. At the beginning of the pandemic, President Trump signed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, allocating billions of dollars to low-income public schools. DeVos announced that, through federal guidance, some of the funds that would aid low-income students would be dedicated to more affluent private schools, especially religious institutions, to promote her “school-choice” policy agenda, which would continuously fund both public and private schools. By favoring private institutions, especially those with similar religious views as DeVos, she ignored the needs of public schools that still need more support, especially during the pandemic. She also cut back on protections for transgender students and sought to redefine protections for sexual assault survivors in schools by narrowing the scope of Title IX. Under proposed regulations regarding assault by DeVos, more protection would be offered to students accused of sexual assault, and sexual harrassment on college campuses would not be investigated as thoroughly, especially in off-campus incidents. Her actions were not only unnecessarily cruel towards vulnerable students, but they also set back movements for LGBTQ+ rights and aid for sexual assault victims. Prior to protection offered by the Obama administration, trans students were not guaranteed civil rights in schools. LGBTQ+ rights organizations fought endlessly for protection of trans youth, and DeVos attempted to hinder these advancements. Moreover, while in office, DeVos also heavily criticized teacher unions striking over school funding and salaries. As the Secretary of Education, DeVos should have advocated on behalf of the teachers that make up our education system, but she instead ignored their grievances. DeVos also proposed allowing guns in schools for protection from, of all things, grizzly bears. In an era of increased school shootings, especially after the Parkland shooting that occurred during her term, guns in schools seem like a far cry from a good idea.
There is one thing both DeVos and Cardona agree on: the reopening of schools after closures due to the COVID-19 outbreak. DeVos spent the first few months of the pandemic pushing for schools to remain open, and one of Cardona’s goals includes reopening schools in the safest way possible. Under the guidance of DeVos, the Trump administration urged schools to open in the fall of 2020 before vaccines were regularly available. Now that they are open and millions of Americans are getting vaccinated, the Center for Disease Control and Protection approves the safe return to schools with health guidelines in place. Since the CDC has now recommended relative normalcy, it seems appropriate for Cardona’s plan to be enacted, but there was no CDC recommendation under DeVos. Cardona has a large agenda, and his plans are slowly starting to roll out. In the eyes of the Biden administration, recovering from DeVos includes increasing funds for the safe reopening of American schools, protection of transgender youth, dismantling of the sexual assault and misconduct rules enacted by DeVos, loan forgiveness, and more.
Cardona and Biden are quickly reinstating Obama-era education policies, but why not enact an even more progressive agenda? In the eyes of many progressives, the Biden administration’s plans are simply not ambitious enough. Student debt forgiveness has been a hot topic within the Democratic Party, but Biden might not be pushing it as much as he should. Former Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren had promised to push for a $50,000 per person elimination of student debt, and her idea has also gained traction among members of Congress who have supported the Student Loan Debt Relief Act which would help the country accomplish those same goals.
Even more ambitious is the plan of former Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders. His plan, should he have been elected president, was to cancel ALL student debt, and make public colleges and universities completely free — and why not? Sure, cancellation of debt may have negative economic implications, such as the high cost and lack of stimulation of the economy, but one benefit of cancellation is the advancement of racial equality, a systematic struggle that requires an immense change in all aspects of governing. According to The Brookings Institution, “the more student debt that is canceled, the greater the effect increasing Black wealth, particularly for households below the wealth median.” Student debt relief would significantly reduce the racial wealth gap and allow more students of color to attend higher education. Considering the US managed to spend $733 billion on defense this year, allocating more money to student debt cancellation seems plausible. Speaking of costs, a common argument against universal higher education is that it would also be a costly venture. In actuality, universal public college would cost as low as $79 billion a year according to The New York Times, which is relatively low compared to the defense budget. Many also argue universal education would help middle and upper-class students more than lower-class students, but in reality, it would help all. Cited by the Sanders campaign, the “College and University Basic Needs Insecurity: A National #RealCollege Survey Report” explains 45% of college students reported struggling with hunger, and 17% experienced homelessness. Moreover, 65% of all jobs in the economy require post-secondary education, according to the Georgetown Public Policy Institute. If a majority of jobs require a degree higher than high school, why not make higher education more accessible? Universal and free public education have more financial obstacles and may be harder to implement, but it isn’t impossible. Pushes for free college are nothing new, and the debate won’t be going anywhere until it’s accomplished.
If the Biden administration wishes to leave its impact on the American education system, it must move swiftly to not only reverse the impact of Betsy DeVos and lead with a new, experienced Secretary of Education but also enact bold legislation that Americans have only dreamed of thus far. Education is the backbone of society, and whether it’s K-12 education or higher education, students deserve a government that cares about their well-being. Dr. Cardona and the Biden administration need to reverse regulations and policies implemented by DeVos under the Trump administration and go even further to enact progressive change by considering debt cancellation and universal higher education.