Miguel Cardona, the Commissioner of education in Connecticut and a former schoolteacher and principal, was selected by President-elect Joe Biden to be the new U.S. Secretary of Education, according to several published reports including confirmation from Associated Press sources late Tuesday.
Cardona becomes only the second Latino to hold the position after Lauro Cavazos in 1988.
Biden made it clear he wanted to name a leader with a teaching background to replace outgoing secretary Betsy DeVos. Several other high-profile candidates emerged in recent weeks, including Howard University School of Education dean Leslie Fenwick, former National Education Association president Lily Eskelen Garcia and American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten.
But the 45-year-old Cardona had the traits Biden was looking for to help push his agenda of trying to reopen all public schools in the first 100 days of his presidency.
Amid growing concern over academic loss both in his state and nationally, Cardona has been a strong advocate for in-person learning. He also has been a strong supporter for English as a Second Language learners, he himself starting out as only a Spanish-speaking students. He received the backing of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, which had initially only endorsed Garcia.
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“I think Miguel is extraordinary,” Gov. Ned Lamont said during a recent press conference. “I think he’s got just the right background. He’s been a hero for the state of Connecticut, a hero for the students not to mention the teachers.”
The Connecticut Board of Education Coalition also gave its stamp of approval, saying “if selected as Secretary of Education, Dr. Cardona would be a positive force for public education.”
And Jeanne Allen, CEO and founder of the Center for Education Reform, lauded the pick.
“All in all, it seems the President-Elect has carved a refreshing path for his education agenda that isn’t automatically rooted in the platitudes of powerful interest groups. Parents and education opportunity advocates are welcoming Miguel Cardona with open arms — and a clear plan for him to ensure he puts the interests of their children first.”
Before being named Commissioner of the Department of Education in Connecticut in August of 2019 – the first Latino to earn the position – Cardona was the assistant superintendent of teaching and learning in Meriden, CT, a diverse city of approximately 60,000 where he grew up in a public housing development. After a stint as a fourth-grade teacher in his hometown, he became the youngest principal in the state at another elementary school there at age 27. He spent 10 years in the position before becoming a performance and evaluation specialist in the school system.
Among his many accomplishments in this challenging year beset by COVID-19 cases statewide, was Connecticut’s launch a full-year of free internet for all families of students in need. It also became the first state in the country to require schools to launch Puerto Rican, Latino and African-American curriculum by 2022.
“This curriculum acknowledges that by connecting the story of people of color in the U.S. to the larger story of American history,” Cardona, of Puerto Rican heritage, said in a recent statement. “Identities matter. The fact is that more inclusive, culturally relevant content in classrooms leads to greater student engagement and better outcomes for all.”
Some teachers unions in Connecticut have been critical this year of Cardona’s handling of the reopening because he has focused on individual schools and districts having the choice to remain open if they can. They have pressed for blanket decisions statewide. One of the things they can’t fault has been the state’s ability to get technology into the hands of students – it was the first in the nation to provide devices to students in need, one of keys in trying to close the gaps of those from underserved communities.
Aside from the face-to-face instruction dilemma, there are numerous issues and challenges facing the next secretary, including budget shortfalls, myriad changes expected after Devos’ departure and addressing vaccinations in schools, as well as the digital divide and expected education loss from remote learning in 2020.
Chris Burt is an education reporter and editor for District Administration and University Business magazine.