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Biden Picks Connecticut Schools Chief Miguel Cardona for Education Secretary

By Andrew Ujifusa & Evie Blad — December 22, 2020 | Updated: December 22, 2020 6 min read
State Commissioner of Education Miguel Cardona speaks with Berlin High School students while on a tour of the school on Jan. 28, 2020. Cardona met with students to hear about the issues they face and visited classrooms at the high school and Griswold Elementary School.
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President-elect Joe Biden announced Tuesday he will nominate Miguel Cardona, Connecticut’s education commissioner and a former teacher and public school principal, to be the next secretary of education.

Cardona would replace U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who has led the department for nearly four years and did not have a background as an educator when she took over the Department of Education in 2017.

Cardona was appointed Connecticut’s top K-12 official in August of last year by Gov. Ned Lamont, a Democrat. Cardona worked as an elementary school teacher in Connecticut and served as a principal for 10 years in the Meriden, Conn., school district, according to his biography on the state education department’s website.

In announcing his selection of Cardona, Biden said in a statement, “He will help us address systemic inequities, tackle the mental health crisis in our education system, give educators a well-deserved raise, ease the burden of education debt, and secure high-quality, universal pre-K for every three- and four year-old in the country.”

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Cardona grew up in public housing and learned English as a second language, experiences that reflect the evolving demographics in America’s public schools.

If confirmed by the Senate, he would take over the Education Department at a time of crisis for the nation’s schools, which have been battered by the coronavirus pandemic. The fallout from remote learning, looming challenges for state and local school funding, and the general disruption for students and educators will likely preoccupy the department for years.

Cardona would be the second education secretary of Puerto Rican descent, after former education secretary John B. King Jr., who served under President Barack Obama. Cardona’s parents came to the U.S. mainland as children from Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory.

Biden had pledged to pick a public school educator to lead the Education Department, partially in response to concerns from teachers that their voices are overlooked in policy debates. Cardona easily fits that description.

“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,” National Education Association President Becky Pringle said in a statement.

Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat, praised Cardona on Twitter as “a champion for children” who would help reverse “the devastating damage done by Betsy DeVos.”

A Proponent of Face-to-Face Learning in the Pandemic

During the coronavirus pandemic, Cardona has pushed for schools to resume in-person learning, but has stopped short of backing orders for them to do so. “Closing schools alone would not reduce ... the transmission risk in other places,” Cardona said during an interview last month with the Connecticut Mirror. “In school, we know that students have their mitigation strategies, like distancing and facial coverings.”

After reports surfaced that Biden was considering him for the job, the Connecticut affiliates of the American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association released a statement praising Cardona’s “openness and collaboration” during the pandemic.

“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,” the unions, along with other labor groups, said in a Dec. 18 statement.

Connecticut elementary school teacher Nicole Rizzo was more critical. She’s one of the organizers of a group called Connecticut Public School Advocates that has been concerned schools are opening too quickly.

“The overall sentiment of teachers is just a disappointment of his callous disregard of teachers’ health throughout this entire pandemic,” Rizzo said of Cardona.

Some school districts in Connecticut that serve predominately students of color don’t have enough resources or funding to reopen safely—many school buildings are old and lack proper ventilation, she said.

Other Connecticut educators embraced Cardona’s selection.

David Bosso, a social studies teacher at Berlin High School, said he has talked with Cardona a few times in Bosso’s capacity as the president of the Connecticut Teacher of the Year Council.

“He’s a very genuine individual and seems to be very collaborative, very supportive, very open-minded,” said Bosso, who was the state’s 2012 Teacher of the Year. “He wants to hear teachers and their perspectives.”

Cardona has highlighted his Latino background and the fact that he did not speak English when he entered kindergarten in Connecticut. He told the Connecticut Mirror last year that, “It’s not lost on me, the significance of being the grandson of a tobacco farmer who came here for a better life, who despite having a 2nd-grade education was able to raise his family and create that upward mobility cycle.”

And in a 2018 column for a website about teaching in Connecticut, Cardona wrote: “Like many, I remember what it felt like to be on the wrong side of a stereotype, and I felt it was my purpose in education to evolve the thinking of the next generation. Equity became a foundation for my passion around this time.”

When Connecticut adopted a requirement for high schools to offer African-American, Black, Puerto Rican, and Latino studies starting in 2022, Cardona praised the shift, saying, “The fact is that more inclusive, culturally relevant content in classrooms leads to greater student engagement and better outcomes for all.”

When he became a principal at age 28, he became the youngest principal in Connecticut at that time. In 2012, he was named the state’s principal of the year. He eventually became assistant superintendent for the Meriden schools.

Mark Benigni, the current superintendent of Meriden schools, who was recognized by Education Week for his district leadership in 2015, praised Cardona’s record.

“He exemplifies the promise of education and why America is the greatest nation in the world,” Benigni wrote of Cardona in an email to Education Week in advance of a nomination. “If you work hard, take your education seriously, treat others with respect, and stay grounded in family and community, you can realize and fulfill all of your dreams. Miguel would be an exceptional choice to lead our nation’s educational system.”

Carissa Moffat Miller, the chief executive officer of the Council of Chief State School Officers, wrote Biden’s transition team in support of Cardona’s nomination Monday. She praised his “bold yet thoughtful” approach to reopening schools, his personal background, and his commitment to educational equity.

“Dr. Cardona is a passionate, dedicated leader who has served public education at the classroom, school, district, and state levels,” she wrote. “He has the on-the-ground experience that is critical for someone making policy decisions at a federal level and a deep understanding how these impact students, teachers and communities.”

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus, which has encouraged Biden to appoint more Latino Americans to his cabinet, also backed Cardona.

Jeanne Allen, the founder and CEO of the Center for Education Reform, which sided with DeVos on many issues, called Cardona “an intriguing choice.” If Biden had selected a current or former teachers’ union leader, as he was reportedly considering, it would have been “akin to an act of war on the progress of the last three decades of pushing power to parents, and on those who have fought to get their kids educated this year, whether back in traditional schools or by their own hand,” she said in a statement.

In addition to his K-12 background, Cardona also has experience in higher education, having taught educational leadership at the University of Connecticut. Cardona was co-chairman of the state’s Achievement Gap Task Force.

Madeline Will, Staff Writer contributed to this article.

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