‘Turn crisis into opportunity.’ Education chief Cardona seeks school funding increase

·4 min read
Brittainy Newman/AP

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona will push for funding increases to federal grants designed to boost low-income students and students with disabilities in a Thursday speech outlining his policy priorities for his second year in office.

Excerpts of the speech shared in advance with McClatchy show Cardona will touch on a variety of topics ranging from student loan debt to mental health support for K-12 students, but the overall theme will be using the reopening of schools after two years of disruption from the pandemic as an opportunity to address long-standing gaps in the education system.

“We can’t lose this moment — this chance for a reset in education — by going back to the same pre-pandemic strategies that did not address inequities for Latino, Black, and Native students; students from low-income backgrounds; students from rural communities; students with disabilities; students experiencing homelessness, and English learners,” Cardona will say in the Thursday speech at the Department of Education’s headquarters in Washington.

“Instead, let’s do what America does best — turn crisis into opportunity.”

Cardona will call for an increase of funding for Title I schools, which receive federal assistance on the basis that 40% or more of students enrolled come from low-income families.

The plea for additional funding comes as Congress’ continuing resolution to maintain funding for federal agencies at 2021 levels is set to expire next month and Congress is set to resume its wrangling over the 2022 budget.

As a candidate, President Joe Biden called for a tripling of funds for the Title I program. His proposed budget for the current fiscal year seeks a $20 billion increase for the program, which would more than double its 2021 funding level of $16.5 billion.

There are more than 60,000 Title I schools nationwide, including 619 in South Carolina, roughly half of the state’s schools.

Cardona will also push for an increase of funding for schools under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the federal law which governs special education and other services for students with disabilities.

Biden has proposed a $2.7 billion increase for the program, which would increase the funding to a total of $16 billion to fund services for 7.6 million students with disabilities nationwide.

Cardona’s recommendations to school districts

Cardona’s speech also includes recommendations that school districts use unspent federal aid from the American Rescue Plan to provide students with tutoring and mental health support.

“I’d like to challenge all of our district leaders to set a goal of giving every child that fell behind during the pandemic at least 30 minutes per day, three days a week, with a well-trained tutor who is providing that child with consistent, intensive support,” Cardona’s speech says.

“Our schools must also embed mental health supports into their day-to-day operations in new and innovative ways. Every child must have access to a mental health professional — whether through their school or through a connected community-based organization.”

South Carolina’s Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman said Wednesday districts have spent about $215 million of $844 million of the second round of federal COVID-19 relief, and they’ve started to spend the $1.9 billion in aid from the American Rescue Plan. The money has to be spent by 2024.

Cardona, 46, began his career as an elementary school teacher and principal in Connecticut before being tapped to serve as the state’s commissioner of education in 2019 and ascending to President Joe Biden’s cabinet just two years later.

It’s a role that has put him at the center of the intense disputes over school districts’ handling of the pandemic. Biden tasked Cardona with overseeing the administration’s response to states that have restricted or penalized districts for enacting mask mandates and other mitigation strategies.

The Department of Education opened a civil rights investigation into South Carolina’s budget provision aimed at prohibiting mask mandates in schools. A federal court eventually threw it out.

Cardona’s speech sets several goals for districts to implement as they emerge from the pandemic, including that every high school have at least one career counselor and every high school student participate in at least extracurricular activity at their school.

He will also offer his full-throated support for raising teachers’ wages.

“Let’s not just talk about honoring educators, let’s make sure they are treated with the respect and the dignity they deserve,” Cardona will say. “This means a livable wage, ongoing professional learning and development, supportive working conditions and a work environment where their voices are welcome as critical partners in our work to improve education.”

Increasing teacher pay in South Carolina has been an ongoing effort for the last several years as the state tries to remain competitive with other states and fix a growing teacher shortage.

Gov. Henry McMaster has proposed increasing the starting salaries for teachers to $38,000 from $36,000. On Wednesday, Spearman said the state needs to strive to reach a $40,000 minimum salary.

“If I had known you had more revenue, I probably would have asked for more,” Spearman told lawmakers. “The teachers deserve that.”

Reporter Joseph Bustos contributed to this article.

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