U.S. Education Secretary Says Build Back Better Plan Transforms Schooling in Michigan

U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona says the Build Back Better legislation impacts everything from child care to workforce training. But he says the one thing it won’t substantially affect is college tuition and school infrastructure.

President Biden’s Build Back Better legislation continues to wind its tortuous way towards the Congressional finish line.

In the face of declining approval ratings and Democrats’ recent electoral defeats, Biden is dispatching members of his cabinet across the country to the social benefits of the Build Back Better plan for everyday Americans.

One such cabinet member, U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, says the proposal will be “transformational” for schools, students and parents.

Cardona says the legislation will not only reshape the educational landscape both nationally and in Michigan, but also build on programs already underway in the state.

Listen: U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona says the Build Back Better legislation impacts everything from child care to workforce training.

U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cordona (edited for clarity): I’ve been in education for over 24 years, and I’ve never seen a plan that really lifts up education like this one does. And I’ll talk specifically about universal access to pre-kindergarten for three and four-year-olds across the country. As a former school principal, I remember those five, six, seven-year-olds who didn’t have a good quality early childhood program. And those students needing intervention early on, and often became frustrated with school because they were struggling. This [plan] is leveling the playing field. We talk a lot about education being the great equalizer. A quality early childhood program delivers on that. There’s also additional funds for Pell Grants, which means more people can go to college. I remember in Macomb County at a school in Michigan, I talked to someone named Ruth who said that because of Pell Grants she was able to go back to school and follow her passion. She was well into her 50s, and she said, “I’m going back now to follow my dreams.” The Pell Grant allowed that. In this framework, there’s an increase of over $500 in the Pell Grant. And then I think (when) we talk about Michigan, we can learn a lot from Michigan and how they connect their community colleges to the high schools and to the workforce needs out there. But there’s around $10 billion in investments in community college workforce preparation in this framework. That’s significant. Think about Michigan, a state that does it well already. And I know your governor is a big supporter of it. I know Congressman Levin is a big supporter of it. Imagine additional funds to make a stronger throughline between community college and the workforce. It’s going to help the economy over there. It’s going to help the students, the families, but overall the economy.

Quinn Klinefelter, WDET News: The mayor of Detroit and other officials have often talked about pushing for trade schools and saying that there are a lot of people who are not going to be able to go to college, even a community college setting at this point. In your view, does this Build Back Better framework have something in place that would help trade schools or other things that are not exactly collegiate level?

Absolutely. I mean, if you’re gonna have a robust community college workforce preparation program, you’re going to need programs that feed into it. And it’s part of our goal here at the agency to ensure that our high schools are evolving quicker to make sure that we’re meeting the workforce needs as well. So that combined with the investment in workforce preparation at community colleges, I could see there being a relationship between high schools and community college where students are starting programs in high schools and then wrapping it up in the community colleges to go out into the workforce and get six-figure-paying jobs that exist right now that are unfilled because we haven’t evolved quick enough. This is going to help the students and the entire economy in that community.

There’s also money (in the plan) to help provide access to childcare, which has been a drawback for women, in particular, trying to re-enter the workforce.

I appreciate the fact that you showed a gender challenge there. When we talk about transformative plans, we think about those who have been disproportionately affected by the way the system is now. We know women are going to gain. If we move this forward, this child care investment will allow many women to return to the workforce themselves. Child care costs were so high that they were crippling many families’ ability to buy a home or invest in other things for their family or even have kids. So this is going to allow for families not to pay more than 7% of their income, which allows them to join the workforce. And, most importantly, follow their dreams and chase that American dream.

“When we talk about transformative plans, we think about those who have been disproportionately affected by the way the system is now. We know women are going to gain if we move this forward.” – U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cordona

As this winds its way through the legislative process, it’s been pared down because of a variety of factors. One of the things that seems to have been pared down is the tuition-free community college, which was one of the centerpieces of President Biden’s college affordability agenda when he was running. It seems to have been cut in large part from the legislation. In your view and your position, where do you think that stands?

You know, that’s a very popular thing. We recognize community college access for all gives students additional skills to join the workforce, to continue on maybe to a four-year school. And while we were hoping it [would] make the framework, we’re certainly not done trying to fight for it. And we know that we’re going to continue to fight for it. It’s really economic development, because if you think about it, graduates of two-year schools, community colleges make on average about 21% more than high school graduates. So with that expendable income, they’re going to be able to buy homes and expand their family and just, you know, contribute to the economy. So we’re going to continue fighting for it. We recognize that not everything that we wanted is in the bill. But that’s democracy. And we have to embrace that. I think the president also ran, and we’re gonna rely on, democracy. And we’re gonna make sure that we listen to different voices. And we’re not done fighting for it. I’m proud of what’s in it. And I really think it’s transformational. But we’re gonna continue to fight for community college.

As a former principal, is there something in the future that you would really like to see pushed that isn’t in here yet? That you hope either will be in the future or you think should be?

School infrastructure, to me, is one of those areas. I travel the country, I stopped in over 19 states and districts and I saw the difference between districts that have money for school infrastructure and those that don’t, and the impact that it has on students. I remember visiting Pennsylvania and seeing schools that are 120, 130 years old. And the ventilation system was so bad that it was easier to replace the whole thing than to try to fix it. And that hampered the ability for those schools to reopen at the same pace that others did. So school infrastructure, to me, is another source, another area that demonstrates equity, right? I say infrastructure is equity. And while we didn’t get this wrong, we’re going to continue to make sure that we’re elevating the importance of quality infrastructure in our schools so that students have a safe learning environment, not only physically but emotionally, and they have a learning environment that they can have access to science labs and all the other things that other students in other schools have.

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  • Quinn Klinefelter

    Quinn Klinefelter is a Senior News Editor at 101.9 WDET. In 1996, he was literally on top of the news when he interviewed then-Senator Bob Dole about his presidential campaign and stepped on his feet.