JACKSON — It won’t surprise many in Wyoming that Joe Biden’s secretary of education, Miguel Cardona, supports the president’s liberal approach to allow transgender athletes to compete in all sports. But they may be surprised that he supports a prevalent Wyoming push for more local control over sexually explicit books in school libraries.
Cardona was in Jackson, Wyoming, this week attending the Western Governors’ Association meeting and sat down with Cowboy State Daily for an interview.
On what’s been a controversial issue in Wyoming and across the nation, Cardona said he believes transgender athletes should be allowed to participate in their chosen school sports. It’s been a high-profile issue for the Biden administration, and he said his department will continue to have an active role in supporting the president’s position.
Restricting transgender athletic participation is “un-American,” Cardona told Cowboy State Daily.
“I think what makes this country strong is its inclusivity and that we are a different but one (nation), and I think we need to really stick to that. That’s the American way,” he said.
His Wyoming counterpart, Superintendent of Public Instruction Megan Degenfelder, takes the opposite position that transgender females should not be allowed to participate in female sports. As does the Wyoming Legislature, which passed a bill earlier this year banning biological males and transgender girls from public school sports from grades seven through 12.
Cardona says transgender participation in sports is a mental health issue, particularly for members of the LGBTQ community that has higher rates of mental health issues.
“No student should be made to feel less than or unwelcome because of who they are,” Cardona said. “Students should be bold and unapologetic about who they are.”
Ultimately, Cardona, a former school principal, said he’s more interested in providing students access to education, funding schools, improving student performance and mental health, and preparing students for the workforce than dealing with “culture war issues.”
“While some want to focus their energy on divisive issues and cutting budgets, we’re focusing on strategies that actually work,” he said. “We’re funding that, we’re supporting that in red states and blue states. Let’s focus on what parents and students really need and leave all the divisive stuff for politicians that want to make a national name for themselves.”
Cardona also wants more focus on offering flexible postsecondary career and technical education opportunities to help with job retention, a point Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon said he agrees with.
“We need to make it relevant, we need to make it responsive and we need to meet people where they are in the industry where it is,” Gordon said about postsecondary education.
About Those Books
Degenfelder released statewide guidance for school districts last week to help them in crafting local policies for sexually explicit materials in school libraries.
“Nothing in the guidance we have developed bans any book or takes away any local control or forces districts to do anything,” Degenfelder said during a press conference introducing the guidance.
But she also spoke against sexually explicit content being in schools and theorized that to include these books in a school setting damages its ability to provide a tolerant learning environment.
Cardona said that although the topic of removing library books has been getting national headlines, it’s an issue that should be handled at a local level. He doesn’t support states or his federal agency trying to regulate the materials.
“The issue is getting national headlines, but the reality is this should be a conversation happening at the local level,” he told Cowboy State Daily.
That said, Cardona also is concerned about states imposing mandates on library books and materials.
“I worry a little about that,” he said. “Education in this country has been a local effort as well and engaging parent’s voices at the local level is critical.”
Degenfelder’s recent guidance isn’t a mandate; it’s an outline of potential things school districts can consider when making their own policies.
During the 2023 Wyoming legislative session, a bill was considered that would have changed the state’s definition of illegal “child pornography” to include cartoons, drawings and “any other form of depiction” of sex acts against children. Another piece of legislation also was considered that would have barred public school teachers in the state from teaching gender identity and sexual orientation themes through the third grade.
Opponents of both bills said the bills took a severe approach to an issue that can be resolved locally.
Parents In The Process
Cardona said the U.S. Department of Education has made a staff member available to offer guidance to states and school districts “grappling” with the question of whether to remove library books.
“We want to make sure parents’ voices are heard here and students’voices, but we also want to protect student’s rights,” he said. “We’re going to put resources there, but it really should be a local level (decision).”
Cardona also said educators need to do a better job engaging with parents as equal partners in the educational process.
“We have an opportunity to make sure that we’re engaging with them authentically so that it doesn’t become the issue of the day, creating division in schools,” he said.
Gordon asked Cardona if there are ways he can engage with Congress to prevent “one-size-fits-all” mandates. Gordon specifically criticized former President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind testing program as “not making sense.”
“People started reacting to having tests for testing sake,” Gordon said. “It just really warped the whole system.”
Cardona agreed with this philosophy and said Degenfelder should be talking regularly with his staff about how Wyoming can better craft its own educational policies.
Leo Wolfson can be reached at Leo@CowboyStateDaily.com.