Miguel Cardona, the nominee to be education secretary in the Biden administration, won strong support from key education groups concerned about reopening schools during the coronavirus pandemic.
Cardona, Connecticut commissioner of education for a little over a year, has been dealing with Covid-driven school closures for more than half his tenure. Teachers unions in the state had resisted his call for resuming in-person learning before new safety measures are in place. Still, he shows a commitment to engaging educators on student needs and requirements for responsibly reopening schools, union leaders said Tuesday.
“Secretary-designate Cardona is someone who respects educators as the professionals that they are, will listen to our experiences as the people who know the names of our students, and ensure that we have a voice in developing and implementing education policy,” Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association, said in a statement.
He previously worked as an elementary school teacher, school principal, and assistant superintendent. Public education advocates say that experience is an important change from Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a school vouchers advocate with little history in public schools.
Former NEA president Lily Eskelsen García and Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, had both been widely seen as contenders for the job. Both unions, a key constituency for Biden, welcomed Cardona’s selection. He is the third Latino the president-elect has selected so far for his Cabinet, which he pledged would look “like America.”
Cardona, if confirmed, will need the cooperation of teachers unions and local and state school leaders to fulfill Biden’s goal of having a majority of U.S. schools reopen within 100 days of his inauguration. Millions of students still attend classes virtually after classrooms closed across the U.S. last spring.
Cardona, whose family is from Puerto Rico, has a track record of tackling gaps in academic progress for minority students, education groups said.
“Dr. Cardona has dedicated his career to creating a more equitable education system, and as Secretary of Education, I know he will continue to prioritize equity, particularly for historically marginalized students,” Carissa Moffat Miller, CEO of the Council of Chief State School Officers, said in a statement.
Cardona also co-chaired a state task force examining achievement gaps in schools and helped lead an effort to get every child in the state a laptop and internet access.
His advocacy for reopening campuses in Connecticut for in-person classes during the pandemic reflected in large part the unequal impact of school closures on the most disadvantaged students. Cardona declined, though, to order local superintendents to open school buildings, despite demands from some parents and only about a third of Connecticut public school students currently can attend classes in-person full-time, the CT Mirror reported.
While public school advocates may still disagree over some policies, Cardona’s selection reflects a consensus about the importance of public education, Noelle Ellerson Ng, associate executive director for advocacy and governance at AASA, the School Superintendents Association, said.
“There’s not the basic threat to public education that Betsy DeVos represented,” she said in an interview.
DeVos advocated for school choice measures such as school vouchers and a federal tax credit to back organizations providing scholarships to private schools. Public school advocates also successfully sued DeVos to block an effort to divert CARES Act funds to private schools from public school systems.
AASA doesn’t endorse candidates for education secretary but Ellerson Ng said the group was pleased with the prospect of a secretary who rose through a traditional career path in public education.
“We were going to be pumped for any candidate who had actual relevant classroom experience,” she said.
The AFT’s Weingarten said she was impressed with how Cardona brought labor and management together as a school leader in Meriden, Conn.
“His deep respect for educators and their unions will travel with him to Washington—and that commitment to collaboration is crucial to providing the resources and social and emotional supports to safely reopen schools,” she said in a statement.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said Cardona’s selection would be an inspiring message to students, including those who start school speaking a language other than English.
“He has the personal experience, knowledge, and skills necessary to reverse the damage caused in the last four years by this administration’s malign neglect of public education. He would be missed in Connecticut, but his selection would be a tremendous benefit to the entire nation,” Blumenthal said in a statement.
To contact the reporter on this story: Andrew Kreighbaum in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org