Biden’s pick to replace Betsy DeVos is a former public school teacher and first-generation college grad
Biden has vowed to re-open schools after his first 100 days in office and it appears his secretary of education nominee, Miguel Cardona, will be a willing partner in those efforts.
President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris formally named Miguel Cardona as their nominee to serve as Secretary of Education on Wednesday, touting him as the person to lead the nation’s schools out of a pandemic that has upended nearly every facet of education in the U.S.
In nominating Cardona, Biden fulfilled a campaign promise to install a public school teacher as Secretary of Education. Cardona, who currently serves as Connecticut’s Commissioner of Education, began his career as an elementary school teacher, became the state’s youngest school principal and rose through the ranks of the public school system where he was educated in Meridian, Conn.
“In this critical moment in our nation’s history, it’s essential that there is an educator serving as Secretary of Education,” Biden said. Of Cardona, he added, “he’s brilliant, he’s qualified and he’s tested. Dr. Cardona is ready on day one.”
In their remarks, Biden, Harris and Cardona himself emphasized his professional experience working in the public school system — a contrast with outgoing Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, whose history of philanthropy and advocacy promoting initiatives that provide public funding for education outside of the traditional public-school system made her nomination one of the most controversial in history. They also touted his personal experience as the son of Puerto Rican immigrants born in public housing.
“I, being bilingual and bicultural, am as American as apple pie and rice and beans,” Cardona said.
Cardona will inherit an education system reeling from the pandemic, which has exacerbated already-present inequities. Cardona’s past experience provides some insight into how he’ll approach the challenges facing elementary and secondary education.
Biden has vowed to re-open schools after his first 100 days in office and it appears Cardona will be a willing partner in those efforts.
As Connecticut’s commissioner of education during the pandemic, Cardona expressed his support for schools to re-open in person — highlighting the particular challenges remote instruction had created for English language learners, students with disabilities and students who qualify for reduced-priced or free lunch — but stopped short of ordering the schools open, according to the Connecticut Mirror.
That decision was controversial in New Haven, the state’s largest school district, where a majority of parents and guardians said they wanted their children to attend school in-person, the Mirror reported. Cardona’s agency provided extensive guidance for schools interested in re-opening.
Cardona appears to have successfully walked the tight-rope inherent in decisions surrounding schools this fall. Public school teachers in Connecticut expressed their support for Cardona’s nomination, calling him “light years ahead of the dismal Betsy DeVos track record.”
“He has been tested by the unprecedented upheaval caused by the pandemic,” the statement from a coalition of Connecticut’s teachers unions reads. “While this challenge has been a rocky road — and many issues remain unresolved — teachers and school support staff have appreciated his openness and collaboration.”
Once the immediate challenges of education during the pandemic subside, public school districts will still be coping with its long-term consequences, a reality Cardona acknowledged during his remarks.
“Though we are 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 gone,” he said.
Though the $900 billion package of legislation passed Monday includes roughly $54 billion to public schools and $7 billion to deal specifically with challenges low-income families faced logging onto remote classes, districts are likely to face devastating funding cuts, given the pandemic-related squeeze on state budgets.
How those issues are addressed will depend more on state and local policymakers as well as Congress to some extent — Harris said she and Biden “will continue to fight for additional emergency relief for our educators and for our schools,” during her remarks — than Cardona.
But his history of focusing on equity in K-12 schools — his 2011 dissertation was titled “Sharpening the Focus of Political Will to Address Achievement Disparities” and he co-chaired a Connecticut task force on closing the achievement gap in the state — indicates that tackling racial and socioeconomic disparities in the nation’s school system will likely be a priority for the nominee.
Of Cardona, Harris said, “he has a deep belief in the power of a world-class education to help every child everywhere overcome barriers of race, gender or income to reach their god given potential.”
During the Trump administration, the Department of Education has reversed positions taken during the Obama administration on issues like racial disparity in school discipline, access to bathrooms for transgender students and funding for local districts to decrease segregation in their public schools. Advocates have said they expect a Biden-era Department of Education to undo many of those positions.
Cardona’s approach to higher education is less clear, given that he has no track record of experience in higher education policy, though he has served as an adjunct professor at the University of Connecticut.
During his remarks Cardona mentioned the barrier finances can pose to many students seeking a college education, saying “for far too long we’ve let college become inaccessible to too many Americans for reasons that have nothing to do with their aptitude or aspirations.”
It’s not uncommon for the Secretary of Education to come to the position from the world of K-12 education, but the agency arguably has more power over colleges and universities than elementary and secondary schools.
Local school districts and states largely oversee their public school systems, but because the Department of Education mostly controls access to federal financial aid — a crucial source of funding for most higher education institutions — any decisions agency officials make in that realm can have major consequences for schools. Higher education leaders are likely to be watching closely the choice of appointees to oversee the agency’s higher education efforts during Cardona’s tenure.
Advocates have called on the Biden-era Department of Education to tighten oversight on for-profit colleges, cancel some student debt, make already-available loan forgiveness more accessible and more closely monitor student loan companies. Though it’s hard to know where Cardona falls on these issues, given Biden’s approach to these topics on the campaign trail, it’s likely the agency will take up these proposals in some form.
In introducing Cardona, Biden reiterated some of his higher education campaign promises, including making community college free and public college tuition-free for students from families earning $125,000 or less, touting them as part of a legislative plan.
“It means immediately forgiving $10,000 of student debt in the midst of this economic crisis,” Biden said of the plan.
One thing that is relatively clear from reading the tea leaves of Cardona’s past experience and remarks: He believes in the transformative power of higher education. During a commencement speech at his alma mater, Central Connecticut State University in 2019, Cardona told the newly minted graduates, “My life trajectory changed and so did theirs,” Cardona said, referring to his two children, “because of Central.”
It’s possible Cardona’s college experience could influence the way he approaches colleges and universities. Given future first-lady Jill Biden’s role as a community college teacher and that Kamala Harris is a graduate of Howard University, advocates have said they expect the Biden administration to have an increased focus on the institutions that are often underfunded but educate a large swath of America’s college students, particularly non-white and low-income students.
Those include community colleges, state and regional four-year colleges and Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Cardona’s experience as a first-generation college student who graduated from a public university fits in with that zeitgeist.
“For me the person that started off at Central and the person that graduated are two different people,” he told the graduates in 2019. “While I walked in meek and intimidated, I left with purpose, drive and motivation to make a difference.”
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