Not too long ago, federal education policy — and politics — drove much of what happened in New Jersey’s public schools.
No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, Common Core — they were all monikers for policies crafted in Washington, D.C., that tightened testing and standards in the classrooms here and elsewhere.
The feds have stepped back a little from their involvement in K-12 education in the past several years, and the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown the whole situation into turmoil for the foreseeable future.
But Washington remains a big force in both policy and money when it comes to New Jersey schools, and the next chapter is about to begin with President-elect Joe Biden’s nomination of Connecticut education commissioner Miguel Cardona as the next U.S. education secretary.
Short term, there could be immediate decisions about reopening schools in the new year. Longer term, testing is likely to a key issue, both this spring and beyond.
A chorus of welcomes
Several of the state’s chief educators lined up to mostly welcome the choice, a few touting Cardona’s background as a former fourth-grade teacher who rose to be principal and local administrator and then Connecticut’s top educator.
“President-elect Biden has tapped a lifelong public school educator and leader,” said Lawrence Feinsod, executive director of the New Jersey School Boards Association.
Julie Borst of Save Our Schools NJ, the public schools advocacy network, said Biden’s pick of Cardona is that of a “pro-public education secretary who is a teacher, a public school leader and a fighter for equity.”
Cardona’s background as the child of a Puerto Rican family who worked his way through public schools with English as a second language only added to the praise.
State Sen. Teresa Ruiz, the influential chair of the Senate Education Committee, is herself from a Puerto Rican family and sent out a cheer when his nomination was announced.
“He is a Puerto Rican educator with hands-on knowledge and on the ground experience in our education system,” Ruiz (D-Essex) said in a statement. “His scope of work has been clearly aligned with my legislative priorities, including efforts to implement diverse curriculum, improve teacher diversity, close the achievement gap and ensure annual assessments to gauge learning loss.”
But being a state commissioner is different from being the U.S. secretary of education, and there are some issues facing the next secretary that will have a wide impact on local schools.
The biggest and most immediate one may be testing. New Jersey’s and every other state’s testing regimens are products of federal policies dating back decades, which have required at least some form of annual testing in language arts and math. That policy is now in question.
The current education secretary, Betsy DeVos, last spring allowed states to skip testing due to the pandemic, but had been resistant to do so for the coming spring.
The testing question
With at least some states likely to ask for a waiver again and an anti-testing campaign already underway, Cardona will be in the hot seat to decide what is one of the most divisive issues in education.
His history as commissioner in Connecticut provides a few clues. He had already announced that the state’s testing would proceed this spring. Ruiz, for one, took that as a good sign as she continues to press the state of New Jersey to get a better measure of potential learning loss during the pandemic.
“His response to the COVID-19 pandemic mirrors what I had called for here in New Jersey,” she said.
Others haven’t been so sure. Borst of SOS-NJ has pushed against the state’s reliance on testing, and she says she needs to learn more about Cardona.
“From what I understand about him, he’s very keen on overall public policy to address outside factors (in student performance), and he understands the undue influence those factors have on standardized test scores,” she said in an email.
“Obviously, we hope that he will be quick to issue state waivers for this year, but have no sense yet if he will do that.”
Another prime topic is the big role the federal government has played in charter schools, with each of the past four presidents generally supportive of the alternative schools in both policy and funding.
Cardona’s record in Connecticut has been mixed, with some charter schools operating successfully but others drawing the state’s scrutiny.
Harold Lee, president of New Jersey Charter Schools Association, said his impression is Cardona has neither been a pro-charter nor anti-charter, calling him “even-keeled” on the issue and citing how he called charters a “viable option” for families.
“We believe that he cares deeply about educational equity and understands that parents need innovative educational options including charter schools,” Lee said. “We are hopeful about this appointment — 86% of charter students in New Jersey are African American or Latinx and 72% come from low-income backgrounds. Charters are part of the solution when it comes to an excellent education for all, regardless of where they live.”