President-elect Joe Biden on Wednesday introduced Miguel Cardona, his choice for education secretary, as an educator who has stood in the classroom and a state leader who helped to reopen pandemic-shuttered schools.
Cardona taught fourth grade before becoming, at age 28, the state’s youngest principal and then assistant superintendent in Meriden, Conn., his hometown. Last year, he was named schools commissioner for Connecticut.
During the pandemic, Biden said, Cardona helped secure laptops and internet connections for students to engage in remote classes and then helped districts to reopen for in-person education this fall.
“When that pandemic struck, he was ready,” Biden said. “He is a secretary of education for this moment.”
He said he would ask Congress, which just approved $54 billion in aid for K-12 schools, for additional money to help them reopen. He said his goal of reopening most schools within 100 days of taking office was “ambitious but doable.”
In Connecticut, Cardona strongly encouraged but did not require schools to reopen, and every district but one offered in-person classes for at least part of this fall. The exception was the state’s largest district in New Haven.
That record contrasts with Republican-run states such as Florida and Texas, which required districts to offer in-person school, and also with other, more liberal states, where many districts stayed fully remote.
“We … need someone who knows what it’s like, what it takes to get through this crisis,” Biden said. “Reopening schools safely will be a national priority for the Biden-Harris administration.”
The federal government has no control over whether schools open, but President Donald Trump succeeded in pushing schools to open in some Republican-run states. Biden hopes to help reopen others by offering strong guidance as well as funding from the federal government.
Democrats welcomed the nomination, as did many education groups. Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the top Democrat on the Senate Education Committee, called him “an excellent choice.”
There was scant response from Republicans. One Senate GOP aide predicted Cardona would be confirmed easily, saying there is little appetite to block noncontroversial nominees.
It was left unsaid during Wednesday’s announcement, but the contrast between Cardona and outgoing Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was clear. DeVos, a billionaire who attended private schools, sent her children to private schools and promoted alternatives to the traditional public school system.
Cardona, 45, spoke of his grandparents and parents, who landed in Meriden when they moved from Puerto Rico. He grew up in public housing, speaking Spanish, and was the first in his family to attend college. His children attend public school in Meriden now.
“I, being bilingual and bicultural, am as American as apple pie and rice and beans,” Cardona said Wednesday.
“For me, education was the great equalizer,” he said. But he said too many students today are trapped by their skin color or their Zip code. Failure in education has been normalized, he said, for too many children.
Cardona also spoke of the toll the pandemic has taken on educators, students and parents. “We are beginning to see some light at the end of the tunnel,” he said. But, he added, the problems of inequity that the pandemic has laid bare will continue after the immediate crisis passes.
“It’s our responsibility, it’s our privilege to take this moment and to do the most American thing imaginable — to forge opportunity out of crisis,” he said.
Cardona’s nomination was warmly greeted by many organizations focused on education, including some who had preferred other candidates.
The National Education Association, the nation’s largest union, had lobbied aggressively for former NEA president Lily Eskelsen García, and when she fell out of the running pushed for Leslie Fenwick, dean emeritus of the Howard University School of Education. Fenwick’s positions dovetail with those of teachers unions on controversial issues of education reform, whereas Cardona has been more neutral.
Nonetheless, NEA President Becky Pringle, who will need to work with Cardona if he is confirmed, praised him in a lengthy statement.
“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,” she said.
He was also praised by Jeanne Allen, founder and CEO of the Center for Education Reform, which promotes conservative school choice policies including tax credits to support private school scholarships promoted by DeVos.
“Had Biden picked a union leader or equivalent, it would have been akin to an act of war on the progress of the last three decades of pushing power to parents,” she said.