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San Diego Unified Superintendent Cindy Marten – who is nominated to become the deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Education – faced a relatively painless confirmation hearing before a Senate committee in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday.
During a two-hour hearing, Marten took mostly softball questions from Democrats while fielding some of her most difficult questions from Republicans, including Sen. Mitt Romney. Democrats heaped praise on Marten and indicated they would all likely support her nomination.
Just as her hearing was wrapping up, a handful of protestors gathered outside of San Diego Unified to protest her pending confirmation.
During opening remarks, Sen. Richard Burr, the ranking Republican member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions, pointed out that Marten’s record contained several items even Democrats should be wary of.
“I firmly believe that if Ms. Marten was being nominated by a Republican president, [Democrats] would line up in opposition against you,” he said.
Burr pointed to the disproportionate suspension of students of color – which for Black students has remained largely unchanged during Marten’s tenure. Burr also noted complaints within San Diego Unified’s special education department, sexual harassment complaints from students that weren’t investigated and opposition from the local San Diego branch of the NAACP. He also called out a lack of transparency.
“My colleagues would vigorously question a Republican nominee who oversaw a school district where top-level administrators were trained on how to delete emails from the public record in violation of state public records laws,” said Burr, referring to a Voice of San Diego story.
Aside from Burr’s remarks, Marten faced mostly friendly questioning and discussion from senators. The committee will vote on Marten’s nomination as soon as possible, the committee chair said. If approved, her nomination will go before the full Senate. Here are the five biggest moments from the hearing.
Romney Pushes Hard on Reopening
Several Republicans registered their discontent that many schools across the nation – including those in San Diego Unified – had not reopened, despite federal guidance that it is safe. But none pushed Marten harder than Romney.
Romney noted that many private schools have stayed open for in-person learning during much of the pandemic. He asked Marten whether rates of COVID-19 transmission were higher in areas of San Diego County where schools are open. When Marten sidestepped the question, Romney asked it in almost identical language a second time.
“Are you seeing a difference in infection rate in the places where schools are open versus those where schools are not open?” asked Romney.
“I don’t believe so, no,” said Marten.
“Help me understand then why it is that we continue to have so many schools closed,” said Romney. “How is it that even to this day that even in the San Diego region there are schools not open yet?”
Marten reiterated several times that deciding how and when to reopen schools is a complicated decision with many stakeholders. She also pointed out that San Diego Unified had brought back some of its most vulnerable students for in-person services during the pandemic.
But that effort disappointed many stakeholders, including school board members. Some schools initially didn’t open for vulnerable students and the district brought back far fewer students than it originally planned.
Marten also highlighted a panel of scientists from UC San Diego that she and other district leaders convened to help them decide when to reopen. But Romney seemed unimpressed.
“I certainly hope that at the Department of Education you’ll be able to provide guidance that helps the entire nation as opposed to saying to every school district, ‘Hey, why don’t you get your own experts and figure this out.’ Because we do have experts at the national level who have said to us it’s OK to open schools and yet the schools remain closed,” said Romney.
No Republican senators, including Romney, indicated definitively they would oppose Marten’s nomination. Some, like Burr, said they were inclined to support it.
Burr asked Marten whether she believed all schools should definitely be open for in-person learning in the fall. Marten didn’t give a yes or no answer, but instead said that the answer might be different for different communities.
Addressing Learning Loss
Several senators asked Marten how the nation should address what has commonly been referred to as learning loss. It refers to the fact that most experts believe many children will have fallen seriously behind during the pandemic, especially the most vulnerable student groups.
In response to the questions, Marten most frequently pointed to summer school as the first step to make up for learning loss. She also said that smaller class sizes will be key to helping students catch up.
Some senators pushed her on how the vast sums of money headed to public schools from the recent federal stimulus bill will actually be spent. Marten was not clear on the details. She has said that some money should be spent on professional development for teachers to help them understand how to help catch students up. She has also said students will need extra support to heal from the social and emotional scars of the pandemic.
“Everybody’s been touched by this pandemic. There’s nobody unscathed,” she said.
Achievement Gap in the Lincoln Cluster
Sen. Lisa Murkowski cited a report from the Lincoln High school cluster that showed 62 percent of Black students don’t read on grade level, while 72 percent of Black students can’t perform math at grade level. She noted the percentages for White students were much lower.
“You’ve got a pretty considerable achievement gap, according to this report,” she said.
Marten very clearly acknowledged the achievement gap early in her career as superintendent of San Diego Unified. She even set Lincoln’s success as a sort of bar by which her tenure – and public education as a whole – should be measured: “When we get Lincoln right, we get America right,” Marten told VOSD in 2013.
Lincoln and its feeder schools are still struggling, but Marten is close to setting America’s education policy.
As she has spent more years in the job, Marten has shifted her rhetoric – tending to point out more often how well San Diego Unified has done with the achievement gap, rather than acknowledge its persistent existence.
Rather than address specific questions about Lincoln, Marten pointed to an oft-cited report that showed San Diego Unified is a positive outlier when it comes to Black and Latino student performance.
Sen. Mike Braun asked Marten to share her feelings on charter schools, vouchers for private schools and generally the notion of school choice that has loomed large in education debates in recent decades.
Marten said that her son attended a charter school and she believes in the rights of students to attend schools that best fit their needs. San Diego Unified’s leadership has generally been perceived as hostile to charter school expansion.
When pressed on the question of school choice, Marten said she fervently believes that every child’s neighborhood public school should be “their best and first choice,” she said.
This idea harkens back to San Diego Unified’s Vision 2020 plan, which aimed to put a quality school in every neighborhood. That plan had some major successes, but many schools also continued to perform poorly across a broad range of metrics, including suspension and absentee rates.
The driving principle behind Marten’s comment is a theory of education often referred to as community schools. It holds that the best way to improve public education is to make each school a pillar of its community. Schools should be places of community services and health services, the theory goes. Once this happens it will improve results in schools and the surrounding community.
Marten Refused to Weigh in on Canceling Debt
Sen. Bill Cassidy pushed Marten on whether she believes the Department of Education has the power to cancel student debt without congressional approval – an idea that has been floated in Washington. Cassidy, a Republican, clearly didn’t favor the idea.
Marten repeatedly said she would need to better understand the issue before she could come to a decision.
“That sounds a little bit like a rehearsed answer. In fact, it sounds entirely like you were prepped for that. I guess what I want is the unprepped answer,” Cassidy said, visibly frustrated that she wouldn’t share her opinion.
Bonus Wonder From an Alabama Senator
Sen. Tommy Tuberville of Alabama, a former teacher and football coach of many years, didn’t necessarily have any tough questions for Marten. But he did have some interesting theories about education. He started his time by saying, “If I had my druthers we wouldn’t have a Department of Education.”
He went on to expound on a somewhat cynical and 100 percent unexpected theory of the current state of schools.
“We got more problems in here than most people understand about education. We got attention deficit. We got drugs that we’re giving kids to go to school. We don’t have a lot of discipline in a lot of schools in our country. And you know that. We have turned the schools over to kids and not to the teachers. And I’d love to give the schools back to the teachers. Where they can teach. Where they don’t have to worry about anything that’s going on in the classroom,” he said.