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Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona on the school year ahead

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Back-to-school season is in full swing, and it seems that many classrooms across the country are now the front line for a whole swath of issues. There are political fights about what can be taught. There's a shortage of teachers and bus drivers. And for many people who have completed their higher education journeys, it's back to student loan repayments. Those start up next month for the first time in three years. We're going to dig into all of this now with Department of Education Secretary Miguel Cardona. Welcome to the program.

MIGUEL CARDONA: Thank you. Great to be with you.

RASCOE: So let's start with student debt. The Biden administration has rolled out a new repayment plan called the SAVE Plan, which gives borrowers more options on how to pay down their debt. But what do you say to people who really got their hopes up over the idea of student debt forgiveness?

CARDONA: What I would tell those folks is I'm right there with you, and we're not done fighting. We feel that the Supreme Court got it wrong, and within an hour of their decision, we were back at it trying to put forward a plan under the Higher Education Act to provide debt relief, to make sure that higher education is more affordable, make sure that people can land on their feet after this pandemic and just open doors to higher education.

RASCOE: You know, there are people who are critical of student loan forgiveness. They view it as the Biden administration's way of currying favor with younger voters. They view it as a way to help people who are maybe doctors, lawyers who maybe should have some money. What's your arguments for why the federal government should be stepping in to help these borrowers?

CARDONA: From Day 1, this administration has been focused on addressing a broken system of higher education. I guess to refute that claim, look at what we've done for public servants. These are people who are not making a lot of money. We fixed the public service loan forgiveness program and provided a debt relief to over 650,000 public servants. We're really looking at holistic approaches to making higher education more affordable and more accessible. The targeted debt relief plan that's getting a lot of attention is just one strategy. We're making loan repayment more manageable for folks too because we recognize that for millions of Americans that have to repay their loans, we just want to make sure that we prevent them from falling into default.

RASCOE: Let's move on to this academic school year. My kids just started up this week. You know, there are a lot of staff shortages in many districts. What's your department's answer to addressing teacher turnover and convincing more people to go into education and making sure that they are properly qualified to do so?

CARDONA: Right. So, Ayesha, you and I have something in common, right? We dropped off our kids this week, and I'm sure millions of parents across the country just want the best for their child. I think this teacher shortage across the country is a symptom of a teacher respect issue we have in this country. We have many that are targeting our schools instead of supporting them. I look at public education as the great equalizer in this country. We need to invest in our schools, invest in our educators. When we invest in our educators and make sure that they have a competitive salary, we're helping kids at the end of the day.

You know, and I talk about the ABCs of teaching, Ayesha. A stands for agency, letting our professionals who are in front of the classroom be respected as professionals; B, better working conditions; and then C is competitive salaries. Sadly, it's too common in our country that teachers qualify for state assistance. We have to raise the bar for our teachers.

RASCOE: Can I ask you what specifically the administration can do about, like, teacher retention, like, when it comes to funding and money and making sure that the federal government - is it grants? Is it, you know, loans? Is it - what can the federal government do there?

CARDONA: Yeah, that's a great question. So we have several strategies for over $3 billion in grants to states and universities that have teacher preparation programs that work with districts. You know, when we talk about having teachers be trauma-informed after the pandemic, well, we're providing dollars to make sure that there's professional development opportunities for teachers so they can continue to grow. We're also providing technical assistance to make sure that universities and districts are working well together to create programs that get high school students thinking about becoming a teacher early on. That's what we're doing to support our educators.

RASCOE: Many school districts are making it harder for teachers and students to talk about subjects like Black history, gender and sexual identities in the classrooms. Obviously, states and school districts set curriculums, but what guidance is the Department of Education giving on this and on these fights over, you know, gender identity, over Black history?

CARDONA: You know, it's disappointing for a party that constantly talks about smaller government to overreach into the classroom from the governor's office. We need to make sure that our schools are safe places for all students, where all students feel welcome and where students are able to learn about our country's history, the truth of our country's history, the good and the bad so that we can grow. I think what we're seeing across the country is an injection of politics in an effort to divide public schools so that the voucher option sounds so much better.

But I don't believe that spending public dollars to fund private school tuitions for wealthy people is the path forward for this country. That's why I'm fighting to make sure that our public schools are funded well, and we're listening to our parents and our educators in our public schools, and that we have a certified and highly qualified teacher in every classroom. That's what parents across the country want.

RASCOE: That's Department of Education Secretary Miguel Cardona. Thank you so much for your time.

CARDONA: All right. Good talking to you. Take care.

(SOUNDBITE OF FRUIT BATS SONG, "ABSOLUTE LOSER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.