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Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Federal Opinion

Miguel Cardona Deserves a Chance to Prove His Mettle

By Rick Hess — January 25, 2021 4 min read
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In his inaugural address last Wednesday, President Biden spoke movingly about the need to heal our bitter divides, to “stop the shouting and lower the temperature.” I found it a heartening start to Biden’s tenure. I hope and expect that his nominee for secretary of education, Connecticut schools chief Miguel Cardona, will approach his role in that spirit.

While Cardona is a safe bet to be rapidly confirmed by the Democratic Senate, the truth is that we don’t yet know much about him. Cardona’s had a long career as a classroom teacher, principal, and administrator in a smallish district and has spent the past 18 months as head of Connecticut’s education agency, but he has said little in public on the issues that divide Democrats. Cardona’s lack of a paper trail allowed Biden to sidestep internal Democratic fights over testing and charter schooling. Indeed, if Cardona were a Supreme Court nominee, he’s what would be termed a “stealth” nominee.

What we do know is that Cardona’s a likable figure who doesn’t obviously rub anybody wrong. He has a heartwarming personal story. He grew up in a housing project, learned English as a second language, attended public colleges, and went on to be Connecticut’s youngest principal. He says it’s vital to get kids back to school, speaks passionately about supporting vulnerable kids, and waxes enthusiastic about public education. There’s something there for pretty much everyone. The teachers’ unions (which were going to have to sign off on any Biden secretary of ed.) have welcomed his appointment. So have charter school advocates, who were relieved that Biden didn’t name someone openly hostile to school choice.

Cardona seems like a good guy and a committed educator. Quite appropriately, he’s met with a genial, respectful reception (pretty much the opposite of the one accorded Betsy DeVos, who was subjected to blistering attacks before she’d said a word). Now, a churlish observer might ask whether Cardona, with a background as an assistant superintendent in a small system and with a short tenure running a small state bureaucracy, has the management experience to run the U.S. Department of Education, with its thousands of employees, billions in outlays, and sprawling higher education responsibilities.

Indeed, relying on the DeVos standard, a churlish observer might ask whether Cardona ought to be held responsible for the abysmal performance of Connecticut’s urban school systems (true, he’s only been state chief for a year and change, which makes it ridiculous to blame him for New Haven’s longtime struggles; but DeVos never held a position of authority in Michigan and yet was routinely faulted for the troubled plight of Detroit’s schools).

I’m not inclined to be churlish. I don’t think being so would serve any purpose. I do think DeVos, whatever her shortcomings or missteps, was met with unhinged and venomous attacks from the moment she was nominated. But that doesn’t mean that it’s healthy or constructive for those on the right to engage in payback. While I do worry that turning a blind eye to double standards may only encourage them, I also think the culture of tit-for-tat has led us to a destructive place.

Instead, I’d like to see Cardona judged by a more measured and fair-minded standard—and then see that standard applied uniformly to other education officials, left and right. Is Cardona up to the rigors of leading the U.S. Department of Education? We’ll see. Did a brief stint heading up Connecticut’s K-12 bureaucracy prepare him for the role? We’ll see. Are his views “extreme” or “out of the mainstream”? We’ll see.

Most of us don’t yet know enough about Cardona to make an informed judgment. That’s fine. Cardona’s “stealth” status has an expiration date. His hearings will shed some light. Eventually, stances will be taken, and decisions will be made. Blanks will be filled in. Over time, we will all begin to make up our minds based on what he says and does. But there’s no need to rush to judgment based on scattered quotes or anecdotal accounts. There’s nothing wrong with waiting, watching, and then deciding.

Social media and the 24/7 news cycle tempt us to spew certainties as fast as we can type them. That’s caused us no end of trouble, robbing us of room to find our way, forge trust, or convince our skeptics that we’re operating in good faith. It turns everything into an amped-up grudge match, whether or not it needs to be.

In his inaugural address, President Biden said, “Let’s begin to listen to one another again, hear one another, see one another, show respect to one another. Politics doesn’t have to be a raging fire, destroying everything in its path.” That’s a powerful reminder, especially for those who’ve chosen to make education their life’s work. I don’t yet know what I think of Cardona. But I intend to heed Biden’s call. I’m going to listen to Cardona, watch him, and respect him, and see where things go from there.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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