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Opinion
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Guest Column
As US education secretary, I want us to enrich public schools, not ban books and topics | Column
Parents don’t want politicians dictating what their children can learn, think and believe. That’s not how public education is supposed to work in a free country. Here’s what we should do.
 
U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona writes that, "I have always said that division is distraction. We must move past the partisan bickering that distracts from the real work we need to do: Raise the bar so every child in America receives a comprehensive, excellent education that enables them to achieve their dreams."
U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona writes that, "I have always said that division is distraction. We must move past the partisan bickering that distracts from the real work we need to do: Raise the bar so every child in America receives a comprehensive, excellent education that enables them to achieve their dreams." [ SUSAN WALSH | AP ]
Published March 16

What we teach in our nation’s classrooms speaks to the essence of who we are as Americans. It shapes our young people’s understanding of where our nation has been and where we’re going.

These discussions can be hard. But they become impossible when politicians try to hijack them to promote their own partisan agendas. Ironically, some of the very politicians who claim to promote freedom are banning books and censoring what students can learn.

As U.S. secretary of education, as well as a father and lifelong educator, here’s what I know to be true: Parents don’t want politicians dictating what their children can learn, think and believe. That’s not how public education is supposed to work in a free country.

The parents, families, teachers and school leaders I have met while visiting more than 40 states over the last two years are saying this loud and clear. Parents also are speaking out about their worries that politicians are using our kids’ education as a political football.

It’s heartbreaking, for example, to see politicians trying to prevent students from learning about the history, arts and culture, contributions and experiences of African Americans — especially when Black history is a vital part of our shared American story. They want to ban kids from learning the truth when it doesn’t align with their political agenda. But it’s vital for all of us to understand our full history — the triumphs and the tragedies — so we can build a stronger, shared American future.

It’s just as disturbing that some politicians want to limit our children’s freedom to read. Over the last year, 4 million students have had their reading censored through book bans — with the majority of book bans censoring stories of people of color or LGBTQ Americans. Just imagine being a parent whose kid has never read a single book in school about a family who looks like theirs.

Censorship is not only against our values as a nation; it makes it harder for children to learn. The thousands of families I’ve met want more — not fewer — books on the shelves of their schools and local libraries.

In addition to spending their days fighting to ban books and Black history, some congressional Republicans are calling for steep cuts to federal funding. At the levels they’re talking about, that could mean slashing funding for schools in communities of concentrated poverty by as much as $3.7 billion, negatively impacting up to 25 million students.

In contrast with these political sideshows, the Biden administration has put forward real policies that give our schools and students the funding and support they need to succeed. We do not dictate what is taught in classrooms. But we do stand up for what we’re hearing from parents across America.

First, we’ve heard parents say they want more resources for their children’s learning and more opportunities to engage with their children’s schools. To that end, the Biden administration has taken action to deliver that support — like providing resources for schools to hire high-quality tutors and broaden access to after-school and summer learning programs that increase academic achievement. Additionally, in the most recent bipartisan funding bill, the president secured $150 million to grow the number of schools that provide comprehensive services to children and families, such as mental health support, dental services and assistance with shelter and nutrition. These community schools increase family involvement by making schools a nexus of support for the whole family.

Second, we are working to give teachers a raise and ensure that our educators reflect the diversity of our students. Fewer than 1 in 5 teachers are people of color, but more than half of U.S. students are young people of color. We know that our students benefit from being taught by teachers of all backgrounds. That is why the department recently made a historic announcement of the first-ever funding for the Augustus F. Hawkins Centers of Excellence Program, which will devote millions to strengthening the pipeline for diverse educators — so that our teachers can better reflect the students they serve.

Third, we are making sure our students have access to quality mental health care in our schools. The disruptions and stresses of the pandemic have taken a heavy toll on the mental health of our students, educators and staff. But we know that students learn better, feel safer and develop more trusting relationships when they have access to mental health professionals who can address their social and emotional needs. Funding from the American Rescue Plan helped schools hire 36% more social workers, 11% more counselors and 28% more school nurses. And, thanks to the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which President Joe Biden signed last year, schools have access to even more funds to hire more mental health providers in schools.

Importantly, beyond these new initiatives, the department will always enforce protections to ensure students do not encounter discrimination based on race, disability or sex in their schools — including by investigating complaints about hostile or discriminatory learning environments for any student.

While some politicians sow chaos in the classroom, the Biden-Harris team is equipping schools and kids with the resources they need. Our department will continue to engage directly with parents and families about what they want to see for their children’s education and help schools develop best practices to be true partners with parents.

I have always said that division is distraction. We must move past the partisan bickering that distracts from the real work we need to do: Raise the bar so every child in America receives a comprehensive, excellent education that enables them to achieve their dreams.

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Miguel Cardona is secretary of the U.S. Department of Education. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.