A parent’s perspective: Unwrapping the Senate HELP confirmation hearing of Miguel Cardona

Editor’s note: redefinED is pleased to introduce our newest guest blogger, Gwen Samuel, founder and president of the Connecticut Parents Union. Samuel will be a regular contributor to redefinED.

February 3 was a very reflective day for this Black Connecticut mom.

There were virtual celebrations across the country honoring past and present Black leaders, of all ages, as part of Black History Month, a time during which President Gerald R. Ford urged Americans to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”

I personally rang in my double nickel birthday—55 years on this earth, much of it as a mom and grandma trying to make my home, my community, my state and my country a better place as an unapologetic activist and advocate for safe, quality educational opportunities for all children.

A few hundred miles down the road in Washington, D.C., Dr. Miguel Cardona—Connecticut’s first Latino Commissioner of Education—found himself sitting in front of the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) answering questions in a confirmation hearing to become the next U.S. Secretary of Education.

As I contemplated the past, I found myself wanting to be so excited for the future. I thought to myself, “Yes, this Senate U.S. Secretary of Education confirmation hearing could be the best birthday gift ever!”

Finally, the voices of parents, students and families will be paramount and encouraged under the new Biden-Harris administration as education decision-makers realize that “one size fits all children” schooling has never been a best practice or sustainable solution to meet the diverse learning styles and needs of the millions of America’s children.

What could demonstrate this more clearly than the deadly COVID-19 pandemic that continues to exacerbate the many inequalities that have always existed within public education throughout the United States?

That is the message I hoped to hear as I listened intently to the senators questioning Dr. Cardona. What I heard instead were more paternalistic talking points and rhetoric, the episodic, unfulfilled promises that families—especially Black families—have heard for years, from one administration to the next.

Families and parents were mentioned so infrequently during the hearing that one would think “we” are not part of the “us” Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) kept referring to. The way they were talking, you might think our children are born to classrooms, not into actual families.

Said Sen. Murray: “We have a lot of work to do, we have an excellent candidate to help us get it done, and we have no time to waste. Any senator who has heard from a parent who wants to get their child back to the classroom safely — and I am sure everyone has — should vote to advance and confirm Dr. Cardona, without hesitation. And I’m hopeful when the time comes, they will do just that.”

Obviously, we need to place a priority on the safe reopening of schools, but that’s not a progressive agenda in itself. As a former track runner in high school, I see it more as a hurdle that we need to clear so we can get to the more important conversations about our kids:

Are we doing everything in our power to get them the quality K-12 opportunities they deserve and are legally entitled to?

Let us talk facts. The Constitution and its protections do not end at the school-house door!

It’s true that parents are concerned about their kids getting back to school, though 44% say they would like to continue a mix of school and home learning after the pandemic, according to recent polling data from EdChoice and Morning Consult. That preference jumps to 64% among private school parents.

That’s a data point worth talking about in the context of how this pandemic has changed our lives forever — and why the input of parents and families matters to help ensure an equitable delivery of educational opportunities across our country — regardless of race, zip code or income level.

Instead, the politicians only seem to be able to focus on which political party is better, bickering about ideologies, quick-fix vaccinations and HVAC systems. Why are they not talking about money following each child to a school or a schooling option that best meets their academic and life needs?

Why are we not talking about a massive, nationwide tutoring effort to combat critical learning loss? Why are we not talking about whether we need all these aging school buildings or if there might be different ways or places to efficiently and effectively educate our country’s future leaders — our kids?

It has been almost one year since our country engaged in mass school closures, and we are still trying to apply pre-pandemic educational solutions to what will be a post-pandemic education landscape. This business as usual approach has resulted in millions of  children across the U.S. not having received any formal education since their schools closed in March, a sobering new estimate of the havoc the coronavirus pandemic is wreaking on the country’s most vulnerable students.

If you were looking for a commitment from education decision-makers to really listen to families back in that Feb. 3 hearing, you probably were as disappointed as I was.

What I did not hear was that families that look like mine would be more than window dressing under this administration. I did not hear that diverse parents would be at the decision-making table alongside those we voted into office.

This would change the business-as-usual practice of the status quo long deciding what’s best for us even though we are supposedly free to choose. I did not hear about an education revolution that will break down barriers and upend a K-12 framework designed for the wealthy.

In the coming days, months and years, Dr. Cardona has a chance to find his own voice, transform this one size fits some educational system from the inside out, and do what’s right for all families, not just the ones who’ve been blessed with privilege and connections. Many parents like me will not stop fighting until we reach that day.

To quote Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability but comes through continuous struggle.”

I hope that in a year’s time, on my next birthday, I can write that our struggle for educational freedom — which is a form of justice and the persistent fight for our kids and their kids and grandkids’ future — led to change that started at the bottom and rippled out to every single family in this country.

Only then will this Black mom be satisfied. Only then will I be able to congratulate our elected officials and Dr. Cardona on a job well done.