Carol Burris is the Executive Director of the Network for Public Education. She watched Secretary Cardona testify before various committees and was chagrined to see how ill-informed he was. She called to tell me what he said, and I was appalled by how poorly informed he was.

Why does he know so little about the defects of vouchers? Why has no one in the Department told him that most students who take vouchers are already enrolled in private and religious schools? Why has no one told him about the dismal academic performance of students who leave public schools to use a voucher? I suggest that his chief of staff invite Joshua Cowen of Michigan State University to brief the Secretary; clearly, no one in the Department has.

Why is he so ill-informed about the meaning of NAEP scores? How can he not know that “proficient” on NAEP is not grade level? Why does he not know that NAEP proficient represents solid academic performance? Why has no one told him that he is using fake data?

Why is he not speaking out loud and clear against vouchers, armed with facts and data? Why is he not speaking out against privatization of public schools? Why is he not speaking out against censorship? Why is he not speaking out against the Dark Money-funded astroturf groups like “Moms for Liberty,” whose main goal is smearing public schools? Why is the Federal Charter Schools Program still funding charter chains that are subsidized by billionaires?

He is a mild-mannered man, to be sure, but now is not the time to play nice when the enemies of public schools are using scorched earth tactics and lies. Now is the time for a well-informed, fearless voice to speak up for students, teachers, principals, and public schools. Now is the time to defend the nation’s public schools against the nefarious conspiracy to defame and defund them. Not with timidity, but with facts, accuracy, bold words, and actions.

Carol Burris writes:

Secretary of Education Cardona is a sincere and good man who cares about children and public education. However, his appearances before Congress to defend the Biden education budget have been serious disappointments. The Republican Party is now clearly on a mission to destroy public education. He must recognize the threat and lead with courage and facts. Unfortunately, he seems more interested in deflecting arguments and placating voucher proponents than facing the assault on public education head-on. 

During the April 18 budget hearing, the Republicans, who now control the committee, had four objectives: to slash education funding, to score political points at the expense of transgender students, to support vouchers, and to complain that student loan forgiveness was unfair. 

Although the Secretary pushed back on all four, his arguments were at times disappointingly uninformed. Whenever asked about proposed policies regarding including transgender students in sports, his responses were evasive and robotic. He objected to vouchers because they reduced funding for public schools but never mentioned that vouchers result in publicly funded discrimination. Overall, he missed valuable opportunities to seize the opportunity to lead with moral courage in defense of children, democracy, and public education.

Shortly into the discussion, the Secretary argued the case against budget cuts by disparaging the performance of our public schools and their students. He called NAEP reading levels “appalling” and “unacceptable,” falsely claiming that only 33% of students are reading at “grade level.”

As Diane explained in her blog on April 19, Secretary Cardona is flat-out wrong. As described on the website of the National Center for Education Statistics:

“It should be noted that the NAEP Proficient achievement level does not represent grade level proficiency as determined by other assessment standards (e.g., state or district assessments).”

He could have made far better (and more honest) arguments for why the budget should not be cut. A wealth of research shows the connection between funding and student performance. He could have explained how Title I funds help close the gap between resource-rich and resource-poor districts. He could have argued how important a well-educated citizenry is in preserving our democracy. Instead, he kept repeating that a “tsunami of jobs” was coming as though the only purpose of schooling was job training. 

Later on, Secretary Cardona defended the budget by citing the teacher shortage. However, he pivoted and argued that we did not have a teacher shortage problem but rather a “teacher respect problem,” with no explanation regarding how his budget would address that. 

I cringed when he said, “Research shows that the most influential factor in a child’s success is the teacher in front of the classroom.” No, Mr. Secretary, that is not what research shows. Research consistently shows that out-of-school factors like poverty far more influence variations in children’s academic outcomes than in-school factors. This is not to say that teacher quality does not matter—it is the most important in-school factor, but outside factors are more influential.

Sadly, Secretary Cardona’s incorrect assertion harkens back to Race to the Top thinking, resulting in ineffective and unpopular policies such as evaluating teachers by student test scores.  Much like his inaccurate remarks about NAEP scores, he used an argument from the Republican playbook–public schools and teachers are failing America’s students.

When he was recently grilled by the Education and Workforce committee on whether he favors vouchers, he still would not confront the issue head-on, repeating that he used school choice to go to a vocational high school. When pressed, he responded, “What I’m not in favor of, sir, is using dollars intended to elevate or raise the bar, as we call it, public school programming, so that the money goes to private school vouchers. What happens is, we’re already having a teacher shortage; if you start taking dollars away from the local public school, those schools are going to be worse.”

Vouchers indeed drain funding from public schools, but there are far more compelling reasons to oppose them, beginning with their ability to discriminate in admissions. A 2010 study published by his own department showed that 22% of students who got a SOAR voucher never used it. The top reasons included: no room in the private school, the school could not accommodate the child’s special needs, and the child did not pass the admissions test or did not want to be “left back.” Schools choose—an aspect of school choice that voucher proponents ignore. 

And he allowed Aaron Bean of Florida to cite 2011 SOAR graduation statistics from the American Heritage Foundation about the DC voucher program without challenging him with the findings of a 2019 Department of Education study of SOAR that showed voucher student declines in math scores and no improvement in reading when they move to a private school. The overwhelming majority of voucher students use them in the early years, making graduation rate comparisons a less meaningful statistic. Interestingly, the 2010 study found that students often left the SOAR system because there was no room for them in high schools. More than half of all voucher students who take a voucher do not continue in the SOAR voucher system. 

Was the Secretary poorly briefed? Or did he believe he would win over Republican committee members by using their arguments when defending the President’s budget?

Either way, one can only hope that when he meets with the Senate, he is better prepared and dares to say that public money belongs in public schools that educate every child.  We need a Secretary of Education that is willing to stand up, push back and use facts to dispute the Republican narrative that American education is broken, not a Secretary who reinforces it.