Federal schools chief talks vouchers, student debt relief, reading ‘crisis’

Education secretary holds editorial board meeting with AJC
U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona meets AJC reporters and editors for an editorial board meeting at Cox Headquarters, Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2024, in Atlanta. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason.Getz@ajc.com

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona meets AJC reporters and editors for an editorial board meeting at Cox Headquarters, Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2024, in Atlanta. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, in a meeting with Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporters and editors Tuesday, raised concerns about school vouchers, talked about the importance of increasing pay for teachers and defended the department’s efforts to upgrade its online financial aid form for college students.

The Education Department updated the decades-old Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form, which delayed its launch until the end of December instead of Oct. 1. The holdup has frustrated some families trying to complete the form and prompted some schools to warn it will take longer to notify students of how much financial help they could receive for the 2024-2025 year.

“There were some adjustments that needed to be made to make sure the user experience is good,” Cardona said, adding the new form was able to withstand increased website traffic. “We’re proud of the fact that the better FAFSA is out ... it really aligns with (President Joe Biden’s) message of fixing a broken student loan system, making higher education more affordable and more accessible.”

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona discussed an array of topics with AJC reporters and editors at Cox Headquarters, Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2024, in Atlanta. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason.Getz@ajc.com

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Credit: Jason.Getz@ajc.com

During the 45-minute meeting, Cardona took a strong stance against school vouchers, which use public money to fund private school tuition. Gov. Brian Kemp last week pressed lawmakers to pass a school voucher bill during this legislative session. Statehouse Republicans have tried unsuccessfully for years to pass such legislation, though Senate Bill 233 nearly passed last year and remains in play.

“Let me be very clear: Voucher programs will destroy public education,” Cardona said.

“That local neighborhood school ... has less resources. So you’re basically creating a system of ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ and what happens in those private schools ... when you have children with autism or children that have significant social-emotional needs and they can’t meet the needs of those students? Where do you think those students are going to be sent back to? Their neighborhood school.”

Georgia currently has two programs critics refer to as “vouchers.” Taxpayers receive a tax credit under one program for donating to a scholarship organization. The other is a program that helps families of students with special needs pay private school tuition.

Cardona said he supports school choice, such as themed charter schools, but believes voucher programs are money-making schemes designed to erode funding from public schools.

“I can open a (private) school (and) I can select who I bring in,” he said. “So those data look good. ‘Oh, my kids are performing really high because I don’t take the kid with the behavioral disorder. I don’t take the kid that is struggling or has a significant disability.’ Then I promote that my scores are better than that because I’m very selective. There’s money to be made there.”

Several states, including Georgia, have adopted legislation requiring public schools to use evidence-based strategies to teach reading. Some education advocates have said schools are undergoing a literacy “crisis.” Cardona agreed, adding that just over a third of the country’s fourth graders reached a “proficient” level of reading in 2022.

“Do we have a reading crisis? Yes,” he said. “But let me tell you, you could put the best curriculum, the best science of reading, the best research into a product ... that’s not going to fix anything alone.”

In addition to adopting evidence-backed instructional standards, Cardona said schools need to focus on engaging students and hire high-quality teachers. The latter will require new recruitment strategies, he said, like offering competitive salaries, forgiving loan debt and creating pathways for workers in other professions to become teachers.

Cardona remained in Atlanta Tuesday after delivering a speech Monday at the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. commemorative service at Ebenezer Baptist Church.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced many schools to close and shift to remote learning, the Education Department issued $130 billion to school districts. Most metro Atlanta districts used the money to fund extra tutoring, extended school days and summer programs. While some are deciding what to do when the money runs out, Cardona said the investment has paid off so far.

“We’re seeing benefits and we’re going to continue to see the benefits of it,” he said. " My mentality ... is if we know providing better wraparound services for kids, mental health support, reading, tutoring, highly qualified teachers, if we know that works, let’s not take our foot off the gas when the American Rescue Plan dollars ... are exhausted. Let’s maintain that level of urgency.”

He also highlighted the Biden administration’s efforts to find other ways to cancel some debt for student loan borrowers after the U.S. Supreme Court last year struck down the president’s debt relief plan that would have canceled up to $20,000 for some loan holders, saying the White House overstepped its authority.

“If you have a loan of $12,000 or less, and you’ve been paying for 10 years, you’re eligible for debt relief,” Cardona said. “We moved up the window on that to get it done earlier. We are doing everything in our power ... to make higher education more affordable.”