Can Cardona Improve Immigrant & ESL Student Integration In Public Schools?

Author: Camila Rios (Left Leaning)

President Joe Biden nominated Miguel Cardona as the next U.S. Secretary of Education. Although Cardona has been named, he expects a rigorous Senate investigation hearing on Wednesday. 

The nomination of Miguel Cardona was very strategic. Here is someone who has an incredible personal story of beating the odds as a son of immigrants. He has more than ten years of relevant experience between being an educator, having administrative functions (school principal and assistant superintendent), and recently, being the commissioner of education for Connecticut. He ticks boxes that paint a very different picture than the former education secretary, Betsy DeVos, who was frequently criticized for not having classroom experience,never working in a school, and never attending a public school herself. 

Then there is Cardona, who attracts the masses. His story is one many minority groups in the U.S. can relate to. His parents immigrated from Puerto Rico. He grew up in a housing project in Connecticut and was the first in his family to attend college. The challenges he faced made him aware of the achievement gap in education and social disparities among students. President-elect Biden has described him as “the education secretary for this moment,” serving as a focal point for Senate confirmation hearing questions. President Biden may be referring to a plethora of things with this description from the national reckoning of systemic racism, to the significant educational loss resulting from the ongoing pandemic. It can also mean a clean slate, as most Americans do not know who Cardona is. Aside from being under the radar for most of his career, he has so far had no direct ties to Washington, which is ‘refreshing,’ to say the least.  

It’s important to remember that minority groups often carry the burden of overcoming the odds through trial and error. Cardona symbolizes someone who beat the odds and now advocates for younger and older generations. Millions of Americans can undoubtedly come together and celebrate this “rising” or ” beating the odds” rhetoric, but at what point does a system considered unfair expire? Why should certain social groups bear the burden of beating the odds? This country needs to address critical social issues before it can reasonably expect students to leave schools with equal opportunities. America’s schools are responsible for meeting the educational needs of an increasingly diverse student population. 

These students include:

Special needs children.

English language learners (ESL).

Students with disabilities.

Native American students.

Homeless students.

Children of migrant workers.

Delinquent students.

The U.S. public school system is challenging to integrate, most students fall through the cracks without proper guidance and social programs. Most public schools are not designed to help a diverse student population. 

English language learners have long been a group that the U.S public school system is under serving.. According to the American Community Survey, 21.5 percent of the U.S. population speaks a language other than English at home – 13.3 percent speaks Spanish, 3.6 percent speaks Indo-European languages, and 3.5 percent speaks Asian and Pacific Islander languages. U.S. public schools today serve significantly more immigrant students than in recent decades. U.S. Census data for 2015 show that 23 percent of students are immigrants, compared to 11 percent in 1990 and 7 percent in 1980. 

According to Anne Wicks, director of the Bush Institute’s Education Reform Initiative, students who receive adequate support from teachers in schools become self-sufficient and successful students. These schools and districts have some things in common that can serve as a blueprint for strong, invested school leaders, the use of data, and a “commitment to knowing and understanding newcomer students and their families.” The work to support these students is intricate and varies depending on the students and the host communities, but overall, it is worthwhile to change one student’s life at a time. Education is a powerful tool.

“It’s easy to assume that children are resilient with malleable brains that adapt quickly to a new language, culture, and content if you put them in a school with a lot of other kids to learn English. But assimilation does not happen by osmosis.” – Anne Wicks 

Immigrant students come to the United States with different backgrounds and levels of education. They have cultural  and religious differences that affect their ability to cope and assimilate to a new environment. Moreover, immigrant students and their families tend to cluster geographically, often in low-income neighborhoods, because they can find comfort in knowing that they have people from the same background living nearby. Immigrant children represent 30 percent of public school students living below the poverty line. They have various needs that emphasize the resources that schools are required by federal law, to educate all children regardless of immigration status. 

Plyler v. Doe (1975) declared that education is an integral part of society because it gives individuals the “basic tools” that equip them to lead “economically productive lives” to benefit themselves and communities as a whole. This was a victory for all children. It prohibited the Texas school system from rejecting immigrant children and not allowing them access to education. While Texas had a legitimate interest in protecting itself from an inflow of undocumented immigrants, the Court found no evidence suggesting that immigrants came to the country for the benefit of free education. While Texas had an interest in removing financial burdens placed on the state’s ability to provide high-quality public education, the Court encountered no evidence to suggest that exclusion of undocumented children would improve the overall quality of education in Texas. 

Now, we know that the Court’s rulings set a legal precedent and create social discourse, but they do not enforce its decisions. Who ensures now that all children have the right to an education and that they benefit from a quality one? Under the U.S. Constitution, school governance is the responsibility of individual states. Each state is best equipped to recognize and meet the needs of students from within that state. According to the Research Association for Intercultural Development, the allocation of funds is a cycle. Policymakers determine how much funding schools will receive from school boards and staff. Many school budget decisions are made by community members who vote for the policymakers who ultimately have a voice in funding public education.

Similarly, Professor Baker of the Rutgers University Education Law Center believes that it is not just the state’s wealth but also its effort. He says that “states with greater effort tend to have greater predictive spending on economies of scale in an average scale market.” He has been following this scale for 20 years. His research shows that most states in the last five years have reduced their efforts. This indicator is closely related to what Miguel Cardona may or may not bring to the table in the next four years. How will he unite politicians, school boards, parents, and teachers? How can he influence school funding?

Although uncommon, there have been independent efforts to improve ESL student integration too, Take Salt Lake City, for example, the Granite School District, which enrolls more than 70 percent of Utah’s immigrant students. It serves approximately 66,000 students. The realization that many newcomer students needed a better support and integration system is how the Tumaini Welcome and Transition Center came to fruition. It is an intensive two-week class that helps new K-12 students make the transition to home schools. Part of the program is a parent orientation where they receive English as a Second Language classes to help their children navigate the transition from home. School staff use the data to monitor students’ progress and devise a “multi-tiered system for intervention” that brings parents along on the journey.  

Miguel Cardona has an incredibly personal story, with which many minority groups can relate. But he has yet to impress Americans, and the question of how he will do so remains.

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