Biden to pick Miguel Cardona, proponent of reopening schools, as education secretary

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Joey Garrison and Erin Richards, USA TODAY
·8 min read
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WASHINGTON – President-elect Joe Biden said Tuesday he plans to nominate Miguel Cardona, the education commissioner of Connecticut, as secretary of the Department of Education, choosing a major proponent of reopening schools during the coronavirus pandemic.

If confirmed by the Senate, Cardona, 45, would lead Biden's push to reopen the majority of public schools in the first 100 days of his administration. Biden's pick would add another Latino to his increasingly diverse Cabinet.

The selection marks a rapid rise for Cardona, who has served as Connecticut's education chief for 16 months after working as a public school educator for two decades in Meriden, Connecticut, which has a school system of just 7,459 students.

“In Miguel Cardona, America will have an experienced and dedicated public school teacher leading the way at the Department of Education," Biden said in a statement Tuesday night, following through on a campaign pledge to nominate a teacher.

Biden said Cardona will work to ensure "every student is equipped to thrive in the economy of the future, that every educator has the resources they need to do their jobs with dignity and success, and that every school is on track to reopen safely."

Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will formally introduce Cardona as the nominee Wednesday in Wilmington, Del.

Cardona was assistant superintendent in Meriden Public Schools from 2013 until Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont, a Democrat, appointed him education commissioner in August 2019. Previously, Cardona worked as a principal for 10 years, earning recognition as Connecticut's Principal of the Year in 2012 after becoming the state's youngest principal at age 28. He also was an elementary school teacher.

Cardona is not directly aligned with teachers unions or advocates of school choice in the nation's education policy wars. Both camps praised the pick.

Cardona: 'In-person education is too important'

He would take over the department as America’s students – and their schools and colleges reel from the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

Cardona argued that little evidence exists of coronavirus transmission within schools, according to the Hartford Courant, and stressed the social, emotional and educational benefits of in-person classes over virtual learning.

“In-person education is too important for our children to disrupt their education further," Cardona wrote to Connecticut school superintendents in November, "unless and until local conditions specifically dictate the need to do so."

In line with Biden's position on schooling amid the pandemic, Cardona encouraged school districts in his state to remain open by providing them with safety guidelines. New Haven, Connecticut's largest school district, and Danbury are the state's only systems that have maintained all virtual learning the entire year. Several school districts that were in-person switched to virtual classrooms last month.

Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, attend a virtual meeting on schools reopening at The Queen theater in Wilmington, Del., on Sept. 2.
Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, attend a virtual meeting on schools reopening at The Queen theater in Wilmington, Del., on Sept. 2.

Nationally, school systems have lacked clear federal guidance for how and when to reopen classrooms and how and when to take learning remote. Students are falling behind academically without in-person education, several recent reports suggest.

More: Students are falling behind in online school. Where's the COVID-19 'disaster plan' to catch them up?

Payments and interest on the nation’s $1.6 trillion student loan portfolio are on hold until a few days after Biden becomes president, awaiting a policy decision from the new education secretary as the economic fallout of the pandemic continues.

“It should be a national priority to get our kids back into school and keep them in school,” Biden, whose wife, Jill Biden, is a community college teacher, said this month. With financial help from Congress and safety measures from cities and states, he said "my team will work to sees that a majority of schools can open by the end of my first 100 days."

Student loan help: Freeze on payments, interest extended through January as COVID-19 cases surge

Biden said Cardona will seek to address systemic inequities, tackle the mental health crisis in education, give teachers raises, ease the burden of education debt, and "secure high-quality, universal pre-K for every three- and four year-old in the country."

Cardona, the son of Puerto Rican parents, was raised in public housing in Meriden. The CT Mirror reported that as assistant superintendent, Cardona would often take new teachers on tours of the city's neighborhoods so they could understand the diversity of their students.

“There were times throughout my youth that I think people had lower expectations than they should have," Cardona tole the CT Mirror last year. "It just made me hungrier.”

Undoing Betsy DeVos' work

Under President Donald Trump, the education secretary became an especially high-profile – and controversial – position. Trump’s secretary, Betsy DeVos, polled as the least popular member of his Cabinet, supported school choice and guns in school and opposed many proposals for student loan relief.

More: Betsy DeVos vowed to change American education. For the most part, she didn’t.

Biden indicated his education secretary would have experience as a public school educator, a not-so-veiled dig at DeVos’ background as a billionaire philanthropist. He vowed to undo many of the policies DeVos put in place. Those earmarked for overhaul include DeVos’ stricter rules for investigations of sexual misconduct at schools and colleges, plus her looser guidelines benefiting for-profit colleges.

Under Biden, the federal government’s support is likely to deemphasize school choice and embrace an agenda that is "pointedly public-school-friendly,” said Amy Jackson, vice president of learning and development at Illuminate Education, a school improvement group.

But Cardona is not a critic of charter schools, which operate in Connecticut.

Though he received pushback from the Connecticut Education Association, the state's teachers union, for reopening schools amid the pandemic, the union said his years as a teacher and administrators have been "critical to his accomplishments as Connecticut education commissioner."

"He has been tested by the unprecedented upheaval caused by the pandemic," the Connecticut Education Association said in a statement.

"While this challenge has been a rocky road – and many issues remain unresolved – teachers and school support staff have appreciated his openness and collaboration. If selected as Secretary of Education, Dr. Cardona would be a positive force for public education – light years ahead of the dismal Betsy DeVos track record."

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation for Teachers, which represents 1.7 million teachers nationwide, also praised the pick.

"Miguel Cardona is not just a proud product of public schools — he’s made strengthening public education and fighting for equity his life’s work," she said in a statement. "There is great potential for a renaissance in public education after years and years of the school wars"

From the opposite end of the education policy spectrum, John Bailey, a fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, called Cardona an excellent choice.

"His background as a teacher, principal, and state school chief will be invaluable in helping schools safely and responsibly reopen and address the learning loss pandemic on the other side of reopening," said Bailey, who is also an adviser to the Walton Family Foundation.

Jeanne Allen, founder and CEO of the pro-school choice Center for Education Reform, said that if Biden had nominated a union leader, "it would have been akin to an act of war" on three decades of progress in education changes and to parents who fought to have their children taught in schools this year.

Allen said Cardona has expressed "understanding about the importance of options and of communities making decisions for their own unique circumstances."

"All in all, it seems the president-elect has, with this pick, carved a refreshing path for his education agenda that isn’t automatically rooted in the platitudes of powerful interest groups," Allen said.

Education secretaries are limited in their power because of the long history of local control in the U.S. Most of the policies and practices in public schools, where about 90% of children receive an education, are determined by school boards, state lawmakers and state departments of education. In fact, as Trump’s education secretary, DeVos failed in many of her efforts to expand school choice options for great swaths of America’s children.

What the education secretary does have is a bully pulpit – a megaphone to trumpet the president's ideals and priorities.

Michael Petrilli, president of the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute, said Cardona's recent experience working in a small district might offer him helpful perspective as America's next top schools chief.

The average school district in the U.S. looks much more like Meriden than Chicago Public Schools, which Arne Duncan ran before serving as education secretary from 2009 to 2015 under President Barack Obama. Or Houston, which Ron Paige ran before serving as education secretary from 2001 to 2005 under President George W. Bush, Petrilli said.

"He’ll have a steep learning curve," said Joanne Weiss, an education consultant and Duncan's former chief of staff. "But he seems smart and committed to equity."

Contributing: Chris Quintana, Alia Wong, Nicholas Wu

Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Joe Biden to pick Miguel Cardona as education secretary