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Miguel Cardona: Supreme Court Was ‘Wrong’ and ‘Backwards’ on Student Loans and Affirmative Action

9 minute read

In the two years Miguel Cardona has been in the nation’s top education job, he’s faced several unprecedented challenges.

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected President Joe Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan and in another ruling essentially overturned affirmative action, bucking 45 years of precedent. The nation is in the midst of a teacher shortage and a historic wave of book banning attempts from parents and conservative activists as Republican politicians shore up their bases for the 2024 presidential race.

And yet, when TIME spoke to Cardona on the phone, the Secretary of Education remained optimistic about the progress he sees being made. In a conversation on July 13, he explained how the Department of Education is dealing with the most pressing issues affecting public schools right now, and why he thinks people should still go into teaching.

The following interview has been lightly edited and condensed.

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When the student loan pause ends this fall, what do you say to borrowers who won’t be able to make ends meet?

Our higher education system is broken. I’ll give you an example. The Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program was passed in bipartisan fashion in 2007. It stipulates that if someone pays their loans for 10 years, and chooses a career in public service, after 10 years, their loans are forgiven. This is to encourage people to go into public service like teaching or nursing.

So in 2017, we were supposed to be providing debt relief. Well, from 2017 to 2021, four years, only 7,000 people benefited from it; 98% of the people were turned away. We changed that. The President was really clear with me. He said, ‘Look, we need to have access to higher education.’ We fixed that broken system. There’s over 600,000 people, over $42 billion in debt relief, with that program.

We’re also doing many other programs. We announced two weeks ago the best income-driven repayment program in our country’s history, which will change the experience for so many borrowers. They’re now not going to have to pay as much. In essence, Olivia, it cut in half the college payments that are due to undergraduate students. We’re also going to fight really hard to continue with debt relief. You know, the Supreme Court got the decision wrong.

On June 30, the Department of Education started looking into going about student loan forgiveness through the rulemaking process, using the Secretary of Education’s authority under the Higher Education Act. Do you think the new rule will be more expansive and safer from courts?

The goal of the work that we’ve been doing with the White House and Department of Justice is to make sure that we have a plan that reaches as many borrowers, to provide them as much relief as quickly as possible. At every turn, we’re going to have Republican leaders that are going to try to sue us and try to block us. Many of these same people that are blocking the relief efforts have gotten over a million dollars in debt relief themselves. So the hypocrisy here is stunning.

With the Supreme Court effectively overturning affirmative action, what practices could build more diverse student bodies at the nation’s top colleges and universities and what role would the Department of Education specifically play in this effort?

That’s another example where the Supreme Court took us backwards—a really, really wrong decision. It, in my opinion, ignores the fact that in this country, as much as we’re fighting for an equitable system, it’s still not there—we could be talking about health care access, higher education access, K-12, education outcomes. Black and brown students, particularly, have to work twice as hard to get to that starting block.

Within 45 days, we’re going to have an interpretation, guidance to college leaders on what the Supreme Court decision said and what it doesn’t say. We want to make sure that it’s not being extrapolated to change practices that are working and that are perfectly legal.

This summer, we learned that the math and reading performance of 13-year-olds in the U.S. hit the lowest level in decades, per test scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress. What needs to be done to reverse the slump?

I was a fourth grade teacher. I taught reading to nine-year-olds. It’s appalling how the Nation’s Report Card continues to remind us of not only how poorly our students are performing, but the impact of a pandemic. There’s a plan for bringing qualified teachers into classrooms because we can talk about reading and math all we want, but we have a teacher shortage. If we’re not hiring highly qualified teachers, it’s going to be difficult to get those numbers up.

How can learning loss caused by the COVID-19 pandemic be reversed?

This Administration put out $130 billion to address the impact of the pandemic. That’s the most ever. So what we’ve seen is the dollars being used to provide after-school tutoring support for students, summer school programming. More students attended summer school in the last several years than ever in the history of our country because of the additional federal dollars. We’ve seen the money being used to provide reading teachers in classrooms for students that are falling behind; to provide laptops and level the playing field; to provide support for professional development for teachers who are now supporting students that have faced some trauma—maybe their students lost someone during the pandemic, or are dealing with some anxiety because of the pandemic. The NAEP data is a sobering reminder of the work that we have to do. But we are seeing progress.

The American Library Association reported that efforts to ban books nearly doubled between 2021 and 2022. What can the Department of Education do to help school districts facing book banning attempts in the next year?

Book banning is an example of the folks who have political aspirations trying to keep their name on the national radar, very selfishly at the expense of our students. It’s backfiring. Parents don’t want anyone in the state capitol telling them which books they should have. It’s a direct attempt to censor what our students are reading and ignoring our country’s history. [Attempts are targeting] primarily books on the history of the Black and brown experience, students who are marginalized, books that represent the diversity of our country. That’s a shame. We need to call it what it is: attempts to further marginalize a marginalized group. I believe that decisions around curriculum should be at the ground level. And what we’re seeing is an overreach from many folks who claim they support small government. They’re the ones overreaching and overusing their authority. At the federal level, we are promoting the use of diverse materials.

The Department of Education said it won’t finalize rule changes regarding transgender youth athletes until October. What are schools supposed to do until then, especially when nearly two dozen states have banned trans sports from competing in sports teams that correspond to their gender?

We’re continuing to support and review cases that are sent to us where students feel like their civil rights are being violated. We encourage families and school systems and parents to communicate or file reports because they feel their child has been discriminated against. Our Office for Civil Rights is very active in this.

Do you think teachers should use ChatGPT with students? Why or why not?

Let’s face it, our students are going to be using it. It’s important that we help them use it correctly, responsibly. We need to do a better job providing our teachers with professional learning opportunities to learn it themselves. It’s really important that districts over the summer come up with a plan on how to provide some professional learning for teachers to make sure that they feel comfortable with it in order to teach it to their students.

What’s the role of AI in the classroom?

With artificial intelligence, we have the opportunity to move past some of the rote memorization and really think about problem solving and analysis and deeper levels of thinking and learning.

Remember ‘choose your own adventure’ books? You get an option at the end of the chapter: ‘Do you want to do this or do you want to do that?’ Adaptive learning could be through a simulated game where the students are playing a game, and they’re doing math skills to progress in the game. And then depending on the mistakes that students are making, the game will give students more practice on the things that they struggled with the most and then provide a quick tutorial. Artificial intelligence is taking this to another level.

What would you tell young educators who are thinking about leaving the profession because of burnout?

Burnout is real. I get it. But this is a time when our students and our country need you most. I’ve been fighting for competitive salaries for teachers. On average, teachers make 27% less than other peers with similar degrees. That’s unacceptable. I’m calling on states to step up education funding and make sure that educators are being paid competitively.

But to that young person that wants to become a teacher: you have an administration in office right now that’s fighting hard for you, and that’s supporting you.

As someone who has been in the classroom, what’s your favorite way to get students engaged, keep them motivated?

No matter what letters you have after your name, or how fancy your education was, at the end of the day, [students] want to know that you care about them. While the curriculum is important, if you’re not connected with the kid, the curriculum won’t connect.

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Write to Olivia B. Waxman at olivia.waxman@time.com