Quality early learning and care can help our country address so many of the issues raised during this week’s confirmation hearing for President Biden’s nominee for education secretary, Miguel Cardona, including addressing the opportunity gap, providing social and emotional supports, and providing learning opportunities that are culturally and linguistically responsive and honor students’ unique needs and abilities.
Learning begins at birth and our education system should begin then as well. We can’t expect the K-12 system to remediate opportunity gaps that open before a child’s first birthday.
Cardona shared a desire to not only meet the immediate needs of students and their families amidst the pandemic, but to think beyond the present to design for building back better. This will require new ways of thinking and working. While today’s hearing focused on K-12 and higher education, we hope Cardona will address our education system as a single, interconnected journey that begins at birth (and before) and that must provide equitably and adequately for our students at every step. Of course, this will require aligning and coordinating early childhood work across the federal government, as strengthening early childhood programs and supports won’t be the work of the Education Department (ED) alone. We hope Cardona will champion these investments, even if they might happen outside of the Education Department, and partner closely with his peer leaders at other federal agencies that deeply impact young children, particularly the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Additionally, the collaboration between ED and HHS departments would send a message to system leaders at all levels to do the same — creating an opportunity to use ED’s bully pulpit to drive radical collaboration that benefits all children.
We appreciate the focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion and addressing the opportunity gap in the vision that Cardona has laid out. Additionally, we appreciate his commitment to examining school discipline issues and inequities, which have serious implications for all children, including our youngest learners and children of color.
Sens. Kaine and Cassidy also raised issues around supports for learners who have disabilities. Appropriate screening and early intervention are critical to ensuring their success, as is increasing funding the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act. We agree with Cardona that this would be a “game-changer” for learners.
Finally, it is important that all educators be offered the opportunity to be vaccinated as quickly as possible, a task that is so much harder in early childhood given the fragmentation of programs and providers. Given the vaccine roll out has varied at the local level, we encourage federal guidance that all educators be prioritized—whether they teach toddlers or 12th graders.
We encourage Commissioner Cardona, as well as the President and Congress, to continue to move quickly on delivering COVID-19 relief to children, families, and those who serve them, including ensuring that educators — beginning with those who teach our youngest learners — are included in priority groups for vaccine access.