Visit from US education secretary brings sizable sum — and chance for change

Miguel Cardona is touring schools in NJ and across the country as he doles out billions in federal aid. He’s hoping the money will help schools rebound after COVID-19
Credit: (Edwin J. Torres/NJ Governor’s Office; CC BY-NC 2.0)
June 2: U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona (left) and Gov. Phil Murphy were at Bergenfield High School to promote a return to in-person education.

One stop after another, U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona must feel quite the rainmaker lately when he visits schools across the country.

On Wednesday, it was Bergenfield High School, where Cardona and Gov. Phil Murphy toured the Bergen County school and spoke afterward about their hopes and dreams for schools here and nationwide.

“This is the closest we have to a reset button on the things we know didn’t work in education,” Cardona said, standing outside the school’s entrance. Inside, it’s still a mix of remote and in-class instruction.

“I ask educators, families to think innovatively about what we can do differently to meet the needs for all of our learners in better ways than we have now,” he said.

READ: NJ schools to get $2.7 billion — and rules how to spend it

WATCH: Murphy and Cardona on masks in schools

These aren’t just empty words from a Washington bureaucrat. A former principal from the working-class city of Meriden, Connecticut, Cardona brings with him more than $2.7 billion in funds for New Jersey schools — and $130 billion nationwide.

Unprecedented imprint

In fact, Cardona and his department are already leaving a nearly unprecedented imprint on public education here and elsewhere as the country comes out of the pandemic, not just in the enormous sums in relief money but also policy steps and guidance.

Earlier this spring, Cardona withstood considerable public pressure and maintained the federal government’s assessment and testing requirements for schools, although loosening them a little for New Jersey to give its truncated tests in the fall this year.

For states to receive the federal funds, the secretary’s department will also be driving policy and practice through the review and approval of state plans. Introduced last month, New Jersey’s plan is now in the public comment period until July and then will be submitted in early August.

Federal guidance has already dictated that at least a fifth of the money go to programs addressing lost instructional time, whether that’s through summer schools, extended days or weeks or additional tutoring. But federal guidance is  also stressing spending money on noninstructional improvements, especially mental health services.

“The resources are only as good as the strategies they are intended to address,” said Cardona, who was Connecticut’s state education commissioner before his appointment by President Joe Biden. “We know learning loss or (lack of) access to learning are significant issues.”

‘We aim higher’

In Bergenfield, the secretary after visiting several classes and talking to students said it may be time to toss some of the sacrosanct practices of education. One is so-called seat time for students to be in the classroom for a set time each day or week.

“The goal is not to get to where we were in March 2020,” Cardona said. “We aim higher.”

“We need to revisit the things that we have taken for granted and expected to be the norm,” he continued, “things such as seat time, such as how we engage families, how we engage student voice in the learning process.”

Cardona said the pandemic proved that schools could change their ways.

“They went from in-person to fully remote learning in a matter of a week; many didn’t have the resources, but they made it work,” he said. “They fed millions and millions of children in a new system that didn’t even exist three weeks before.”

“It was amazing what was accomplished under that level of urgency,” the secretary said of the last year. “I hope that level of urgency continues to address those inequities.”