Education Secretary Miguel Cardona will travel the eastern US by bus next week to promote his priorities for this school year, which include boosting the teaching profession, increasing mental health support for students and helping kids regain lost academic ground.
The five-day bus tour, part of an annual tradition tracing back at least several education secretaries, is meant to build on Cardona’s road trip last fall, which covered the midwestern US and focused on a successful return to in-person learning. Next week’s tour, a spokesperson said, will emphasize the stakes of this school year now that all students are back in classrooms – at schools brimming with once-in-a-lifetime, floating COVID relief dollars but in many cases struggling to retain or recruit enough staff who must work with students digging out of a pandemic hole.
“We must raise the bar for our students now and use the resources we have to meet that bar,” Cardona wrote in a recently op-ed for USA TODAY. “We must recognize this moment for the urgency it carries: Our students – and the progress of our country – depend on it.”
The bus tour also could serve to sway swing voters and inspire Democrats to cast their ballots. Polls suggest Republicans are gaining the public’s trust on education issues, which are to top priority for voters this year, generating more interest than abortion and climate change. Much of Republicans’ attention has been on ideological debates, such as students’ 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. Both first lady Jill Biden, a professor and longtime education advocate, and second gentleman Douglas Emhoff will join some events along the way.
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After a stop 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 into the profession.
The second day, with stops throughout Virginia, will highlight ways of using American Rescue Plan money to support students with disabilities and those with mental health needs.
On the third day, Sept. 14, Cardona will make a pitstop in West Virginia for an event on mental health in higher education, after which he’ll head to Pennsylvania for a series of events that stretch through the evening of Sept. 15. Among them: an engagement hosted with teachers unions on Public Service Loan Forgiveness, which many educators are eligible for but have struggled to secure.
Both North Carolina and Pennsylvania are home to highly competitive US Senate races, each with a retiring incumbent Republican whose seat is at risk of flipping this year. And two races in Virginia – in districts near two of the sites Cardona will visit next week – are expected to 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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Back-to-school bus tours, embarked upon by a number of Cardona’s predecessors both Republican and Democrat, often have had political undertones. Although education secretaries have no constitutionally granted authority over schools, they have used back-to-school road trips to effectively campaign for their party’s platform priorities.
If nothing else, they’ve leveraged these tours to remind the public of their respective administration’s education accomplishments.
Diane Ravitch, an education historian and former assistant secretary of education, said in an email that the bus tours have “no policy significance.” They’re probably “meant to get good press,” she said.
Back in 2007, George W. Bush’s then-Education Secretary Margaret Spellings did her “No Child Left Behind” bus tour. The polarizing federal education law was slated for reauthorization at the time, and Spellings spent three days on a bus in Ohio and Indiana to advocate for preserving the policy’s core principals, which included heavy reliance on standardized testing.
To kickoff her 2019 back-to-school tour, then-Secretary Betsy DeVos – one of the Trump administration’s least popular members and a critic of traditional public education – visited a private school. DeVos “didn’t do much in the way of transforming policy,” said Jack Schneider, an education historian and professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. But she did normalize once-radical ideas such as taxpayer-funded vouchers for private schools, Schneider noted.
This year’s bus tour, according to Schneider, provides an opportunity for Democrats to “tell a different story” about public schools than the one “both parties have been telling for the past four decades,” from high-stakes testing to privatization. This new story, he said, could be about public schools as anchors of the community and the need to “preserve and sustain them at a time when they’re increasingly under attack.”
“When Secretary Cardona embarks on his bus tour, he’ll be using the symbolic power of the office, rather than pulling any particular policy levers,” Schneider said. There isn’t a lot he can do: Issues such as teacher recruitment and retention are mostly up to states and school districts.
“But the secretary can use the bully pulpit to try to direct attention and set a national policy agenda.”
Contact Alia Wong at (202) 507-2256 or [email protected] Follow her on Twitter at @aliaemily.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism