5 takeaways from the AJC’s meeting with Education Secretary Cardona

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona meets with AJC reporters and editors at Cox headquarters on Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2024, in Atlanta. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason.Getz/AJC

Credit: Jason.Getz/AJC

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona meets with AJC reporters and editors at Cox headquarters on Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2024, in Atlanta. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona covered a variety of topics when he met this week with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for an editorial board meeting. We’ve outlined some key takeaways from the conversation with him.

He really, really doesn’t like school “vouchers.”

In response to questions about an ongoing push in Georgia for programs that use public money to pay for private school tuition, Cardona said so-called “vouchers” would “destroy” public education. He said such programs drain money from under-resourced school systems and don’t help students who receive the funds.

“I predict that in places that (use vouchers), the students that require more resources or support will not be as welcomed in some of these schools and the impact will affect those schools whose dollars were taken to pay for those vouchers,” he said.

He believes the federal government should play a role in protecting the civil rights of students.

When asked about the role of government in schools, Cardona said his department’s primary purpose is to protect students’ civil rights. That’s done, he said, by addressing educational disparities.

“Since we’ve been collecting data, Black and brown students have been performing disproportionately worse (than white ones),” Cardona said. “Students with disabilities have been disproportionately excluded. So it’s our responsibility to make sure that we’re putting (in) efforts to correct that, to work with states, to work with districts ... but oftentimes, it does become more of a compliance check and a threat to withhold dollars if the civil rights of students are being violated.”

He thinks teachers should be paid more.

At several points throughout his conversation with AJC editors and reporters, Cardona referenced low teacher pay. While the federal government doesn’t make decisions about educators’ salaries, Cardona made it clear he thinks school districts should increase teachers’ earnings.

“Let’s invest in our local schools to make sure that teachers have a livable wage,” Cardona said. “They get paid 24% less than people with similar degrees.”

He says the “culture wars” are a right-wing attempt to divide communities.

Cardona said the fever in some school districts around banning books and discussing issues like gender identity is a deliberate attempt to divide people.

“When we do book bans, when we create transphobia and we ... create a new boogeyman every couple of years ... what was it, CRT (critical race theory) a couple of years ago, wasn’t it? It is a manufactured division,” he said.

He wants to uplift land-grant historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs).

Last year, Cardona and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack sent a letter to 16 governors, including Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, highlighting the financial disparities between land-grant HBCUs and other land-grant colleges in their states. The letter said Georgia’s Fort Valley State University would have received an additional $603 million over the last three decades from the state if it received the same per-student funding as the University of Georgia.

Cardona didn’t have an immediate update on Georgia’s progress but said his department wants to make sure HBCUs aren’t left behind.

“We’ve got to continue to put pressure on states to make sure that they’re holding (up) their end of the bargain because ... the states do have more control over education, and they have the responsibility for funding it,” he said. “We want to work with folks, we want to provide technical assistance, help guide them, but at the same time, we need to continue to put the spotlight on it.”