WASHINGTON — President-elect Joe Biden is poised to nominate Miguel Cardona, the education commissioner of Connecticut, as secretary of the Department of Education, choosing a major proponent of reopening schools during the coronavirus pandemic.
Cardona, 45, would lead Biden's goal to reopen all public schools in the first 100 days of his administration if confirmed by the U.S. Senate. His pick would also add another Latino to Biden's increasingly diverse Cabinet.
An announcement is expected Wednesday, according to a source familiar with the decision.
The expected hire marks a rapid rise for Cardona, who has served as Connecticut's education chief for 16 months after working as a public school educator for two decades in Meriden, Conn., which has a school system of just 7,459 students.
On the campaign trail, Biden pledged to choose a teacher to lead the nation's schools.
Leslie Fenwick, dean emeritus and professor at Howard University, was widely seen as another top contender for the position.
Cardona: 'In-person education is too important'
Cardona is not perceived to be directly aligned with teachers unions or pro-school choice education reformers when it comes to the nation's education policy wars. Both camps praised the selection.
He would take over the department as America’s students – and their schools and colleges – are reeling from the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.
Cardona has argued little evidence exists of COVID-19 transmission within schools, according to the Hartford Courant, and stressed the social, emotional and educational benefits of in-person classes over virtual learning.
“In-person education is too important for our children to disrupt their education further," Cardona wrote to Connecticut school superintendents in November, "unless and until local conditions specifically dictate the need to do so."
In line with Biden's position on schooling amid the pandemic, Cardona encouraged local school districts in his state to remain open by providing them with safety guidelines. New Haven, Connecticut's largest school district, and Danbury are the state's only systems that have maintained all virtual learning the entire year. Several school districts that were in-person switched to virtual classrooms last month, however.
Nationally, school systems have lacked clear federal guidance for how and when to reopen classrooms, and how and when to take learning remote. Students across the country are falling behind academically without in-person education. And payments and interest on the nation’s $1.6 trillion student loan portfolio are on hold until a few days after Biden becomes president, awaiting a policy decision from the new education secretary as the economic fallout of the pandemic continues.
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Cardona served as assistant superintendent in Meriden Public Schools from 2013 until Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont, a Democrat, appointed him education commissioner in August 2019. Previously, Cardona worked as a principal for 10 years, earning recognition as Connecticut's Principal of the Year in 2012, after becoming the state's youngest principal at age 28. He also worked as an elementary school teacher.
Cardona, the son of Puerto Rican immigrants, was raised in public housing in Meriden. The CT Mirror reported that as assistant superintendent Cardona would often take new teachers on tours of the city's neighborhoods so they could understand the diversity of their students.
“There were times throughout my youth that I think people had lower expectations than they should have," Cardona tole the CT Mirror last year. "It just made me hungrier.”
Undoing Betsy DeVos' work
Under President Donald Trump, the education secretary became an especially high-profile – and controversial – position. Trump’s secretary, Betsy DeVos, polled as the least popular member of his Cabinet, capturing headlines for her support of school choice and guns in school and for her opposition to many proposals for student loan relief.
Biden had indicated his education secretary would have experience as a public school educator, a not-so-veiled dig at DeVos’ background as a billionaire philanthropist. He also vowed to undo many of the policies DeVos put in place. Those earmarked for overhaul include DeVos’ stricter rules for investigations of sexual misconduct at schools and colleges, plus her looser guidelines benefiting for-profit colleges.
Under Biden and Cardona, the federal government’s support is expected to de-emphasize school choice and embrace an agenda that is "pointedly public-school friendly,” said Amy Jackson, vice president of learning and development at Illuminate Education, a school-improvement group.
And yet Cardona is not a critic of charter schools, which operate in Connecticut. He also received pushback from the Connecticut Education Association, the state's teachers union, for reopening schools amid the pandemic.
Still, the union applauded Cordona, saying his years as a teacher and administrators have been "critical to his accomplishments as Connecticut Education Commissioner."
"He has been tested by the unprecedented upheaval caused by the pandemic," the Connecticut Education Association said in a statement. "While this challenge has been a rocky road – and many issues remain unresolved – teachers and school support staff have appreciated his openness and collaboration. If selected as Secretary of Education, Dr. Cardona would be a positive force for public education – light years ahead of the dismal Betsy DeVos track record."
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation for Teachers, which represents 1.7 million teachers nationwide, also praised the pick.
"Miguel Cardona is an educator," she tweeted. "He was a teacher and administrator in Meriden, Ct. and now the Ed Sup’t in Ct. If he is Pres [email protected]'s pick just Imagine a former @AFTunion member, committed to collaboration replacing @BetsyDeVosED."
From the opposite end of the education policy spectrum, John Bailey, a fellow at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and also at the American Enterprise Institute, called Cardona an excellent choice.
"His background as a teacher, principal, and state school chief will be invaluable in helping schools safely and responsibly reopen and address the learning loss pandemic on the other side of reopening," said Bailey, an adviser to the Walton Family Foundation.
Education secretaries are limited in their power over America’s schools education because of the long history of local control in the U.S. Most of the policies and practices in public schools, where about 90% of children receive an education, are determined by school boards, state lawmakers and state departments of education. In fact, as Trump’s education secretary, DeVos failed in many of her efforts to expand school choice options for great swaths of America’s children.
What the education secretary does have is a bully pulpit – a megaphone to trumpet the president's ideals and priorities.
Michael Petrilli, head of the Fordham Institute, which leans conservative, said Cardona's recent experiences working in a small district might give him helpful perspective as America's next top schools chief.
The average school district in the U.S. looks much more like a Meriden than Chicago Public Schools, which Arne Duncan ran before becoming former President Barack Obama's education secretary from 2009-2015, or Houston, which Ron Paige ran before he became education secretary from 2001-2005 under former President George W. Bush.
"He’ll have a steep learning curve," said Joanne Weiss, who served as chief of staff to former education secretary, Arne Duncan, but he seems smart and committed to equity."
Contributing: Chris Quintana, Alia Wong, Nicholas Wu
Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison.