The coronavirus crisis has taken some of the “most painful disparities” in America’s schools and “wrenched them open even wider,” Connecticut Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona said as President-elect Joe Biden introduced him as his choice for U.S. secretary of education Wednesday.
Cardona laid out a two-fold vision of helping schools, educators, and families rebound from the pandemic while also addressing long-standing concerns about equity and opportunity.
“Though the nation is beginning to see some light at the end of the tunnel, we also know that this crisis is ongoing, that we will carry its impacts for years to come, and that the problems and inequities that have plagued our education system since long before COVID will still be with us even after the virus is at bay,” Cardona said in a speech in Wilmington, Del. “And so it is our responsibility now, and our privilege to take this moment, and do the most American thing imaginable: to forge opportunity out of crisis.”
I, being bilingual and bicultural, am as American as apple pie and rice and beans.
Biden selected Cardona—a former teacher, principal, and district administrator who has been in his current role since 2019—to fulfill a campaign pledge to appoint a public school educator to lead the U.S. Department of Education.
Cardona, who grew up in public housing and started school as an English-language learner, won praise from a variety of education groups across the ideological spectrum when he emerged as Biden’s pick Tuesday. He is considered by many to be a less- provocative candidate than the current and former teachers’ union leaders Biden had also considered for the role.
“He understands the deep roots of inequity as the sources of our persistent opportunity gaps,” Biden said as he formally announced Cardona Wednesday. “And he understands the transformative power that comes from investing in public education.”
Biden said Cardona would help him execute his education platform: tripling federal funding for disadvantaged students, “fully funding” the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and helping schools to create universal prekindergarten programs and raise teacher pay.
He also praised Cardona’s approach to reopening schools in Connecticut. While Cardona has stopped short of mandating schools to reopen for in-person learning, he has urged them to do so. His agency has provided supplies, created public service announcement videos, and held online forums to address concerns. That has drawn pushback from some educators.
Biden has pledged to push Congress for more funding to aid schools, even after it passed a bipartisan relief package this week. And he’s pledged to open schools within the first 100 days of his administration. That timetable lapses April 30, which is not far from the end of the scheduled school year in some states.
Cardona struck an empathetic tone when he discussed school closures and the struggles of remote learning.
“It has taxed our teachers, our school professionals, and our staff who already pour so much of themselves into their work,” he said. “It has taxed families struggling to adapt to new routines as they balance the stress, pain, and loss this year has given ... It has stolen time from our children.”
Cardona quoted Pedro Noguera, the dean of the University of Southern California school of education, saying “the normalization of failure” holds too many children back.
Among his concerns with the American education system: students graduate unequipped to “meaningfully engage with the work force,” including through high-skilled technical and trade jobs. Schools use “Band-Aids” to address inequality instead of laying a foundation through high-quality early- childhood education and social-emotional supports for students, Cardona said.
“And for far too long, the teaching profession has been kicked around and not given the respect it deserves,” he said. “It should not take a pandemic for us to realize how important teachers are this country.”
Addressing these problems will require resolve and optimism, Cardona said. He teared up when he compared that motivation to the choice his grandparents made when they moved from Puerto Rico to Connecticut for new opportunities.
And he drew parallels between his own personal story and the lives students in America’s schools, which have grown more diverse in recent years.
“I, being bilingual and bicultural, am as American as apple pie and rice and beans,” Cardona said. “For me, education was the great equalizer. But for too many students, your ZIP code and your skin color remain the best predictor of the opportunities you’ll have in your lifetime.”