Education Secretary Cardona will hit the road and stop in key swing states
Education Secretary Miguel Cardona will travel to the eastern United States by bus next week to promote his priorities for this school year, including strengthening the teaching profession, increasing support for mental health for students and helping children regain lost academic ground.
The five-day bus tour, part of an annual tradition retracing at least several education secretaries, is meant to build on Cardona’s road trip last fall, which covered the U.S. Midwest and focused on a successful return to in-person learning. Next week’s tour, a spokesperson said, will focus on the issues of this school year now that all students are back in classrooms – in schools overflowing with fleeting COVID relief dollars and unique in life, but in many cases struggling to retain or recruit enough staff to work with students to dig a pandemic hole.
“We need to raise the bar for our students now and use the resources we have to reach that bar,” Cardona wrote in a recent op-ed for USA TODAY. “We must recognize this moment for its urgency: our students – and our country’s progress – depend on it.”
The bus tour could also serve to sway swing voters and inspire Democrats to vote. Polls suggest Republicans are winning the public’s trust on education issues, which are a top priority for voters this year, garnering more attention than abortion and climate change. Much of the Republicans’ attention has been on ideological debates, such as student access to certain books and discussions of LGBTQ+ issues in the classroom.
An itinerary for the road trip, shared exclusively with USA TODAY, shows that most of Cardona’s stops are in battleground states or communities with some of this year’s most competitive elections. Joining some events along the way will be First Lady Jill Biden, a longtime education advocate and professor, and Second Gentleman Douglas Emhoff.
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After a stopover in Tennessee, Cardona will spend much of the first day, Sept. 12, at higher education sites in Greensboro, North Carolina, at events focused on building the teacher pipeline and pathways to the profession.
Day two, with stops throughout Virginia, will highlight ways to use US bailout money to support students with disabilities and those with mental health needs.
On day three, September 14, Cardona will make a stop in West Virginia for an event on mental health in higher education, after which he will travel to Pennsylvania for a series of events that will run until the evening of the September 15. Among them: an organized engagement with teachers’ unions on the forgiveness of civil service loans, which many educators are eligible for but struggle to obtain.
North Carolina and Pennsylvania are both hosting highly competitive U.S. Senate races, each with an incumbent Republican incumbent whose seat is in danger of tipping over this year. And two races in Virginia — in districts near two of the sites Cardona will visit next week — should help determine whether Republicans will take control of the US House. Virginia’s gubernatorial race last year also focused heavily on education.
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The back-to-school bus tours, undertaken by a number of Cardona’s predecessors, both Republicans and Democrats, have often had political overtones. Although education secretaries had no constitutional authority over schools, they used back-to-school trips to campaign effectively for their party’s platform priorities.
At least they used these visits to remind the public of their respective administration’s accomplishments in education.
Diane Ravitch, an education historian and former assistant secretary for education, said in an email that the bus tours had “no political significance”. They’re probably “meant to get good press,” she said.
In 2007, Margaret Spellings, then George W. Bush’s Education Secretary, took her No Child Left Behind bus tour. The polarizing federal education law was set to be reauthorized at the time, and Spellings spent three days on a bus in Ohio and Indiana advocating for the preservation of the policy’s fundamental principles, which included a heavy reliance on standardized testing.
To kick off her 2019 back-to-school tour, then-Secretary Betsy DeVos — one of the less popular members of the Trump administration and a critic of traditional public education — visited a private school. DeVos “did little to transform politics,” said Jack Schneider, an education historian and professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. But she normalized once radical ideas such as taxpayer-funded vouchers for private schools, Schneider noted.
This year’s bus tour, according to Schneider, offers Democrats an opportunity to “tell a different story” about public schools than the one “both parties have been telling for four decades,” from high-stakes testing to privatization. This new story, he said, could be about public schools as community anchors and the need to “preserve and support them at a time when they are increasingly under attack.”
“When Secretary Cardona embarks on his bus tour, he will be using the symbolic power of the office, rather than pulling particular political levers,” Schneider said. It can’t do much: issues such as teacher recruitment and retention are primarily a matter for states and school districts.
“But the secretary can use the bully pulpit to try to get attention and set a national political agenda.”
Contact Alia Wong at (202) 507-2256 or [email protected] Follow her on Twitter at @aliaemily.