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Biden picks Connecticut schools chief as education secretary

Connecticut Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona speaks with students last January.
Connecticut Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona speaks with students last January. (Devin Leith-Yessian/Berlin Citizen/Record-Journal/AP)

President-elect Joe Biden will nominate the commissioner of public schools in Connecticut as his education secretary, settling on a low-profile candidate who has pushed to reopen schools and is not aligned with either side in education policy battles of recent years, people familiar with the matter said.

Miguel Cardona was named Connecticut’s top schools official last year and if confirmed will have achieved a meteoric rise, moving from an assistant superintendent in Meriden, Conn., a district with 9,000 students, to secretary of education in less than two years.

He was born in Meriden to Puerto Rican parents who lived in public housing. He began his career as a fourth-grade teacher and rocketed up the ranks, becoming the state’s youngest principal at age 28. He was named the state’s principal of the year in 2012.

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One person close to the process said Biden made the offer to Cardona on Tuesday and that an announcement from the Biden transition team is expected Tuesday evening.

Cardona met virtually with Biden, his wife, Jill Biden, and Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris on Monday, this person said. This person and others spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

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As a candidate, Biden promised to choose a public school educator as secretary, raising expectations that the nominee would come from the world of K-12 schools. He also sought out a person of color for the post, considering several other Latino and Black school leaders. While much of the work of the Education Department centers on higher education, most of the contenders for the secretary position had backgrounds in elementary and secondary education.

Cardona’s experience in public education represents a sharp contrast with President Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos, who attended private schools and spent much of her energy advocating for alternatives to public education. And while Cardona has lived in poverty, DeVos is a billionaire who has been wealthy all her life.

A finalist for the job was Leslie Fenwick, former dean of the Howard University School of Education and a fierce critic of education policies such as test-based accountability for schools and teachers who have been popular with centrists in both political parties.

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Cardona represented a safer selection. He does not appear to have been a combatant in those education wars, though he did challenge teachers unions as he worked to reopen schools this fall.

Nonetheless, before he was named, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, described him as a “very, very solid” candidate.

Democrats who support accountability-type education changes, concerned that Fenwick would get the job, lobbied for Cardona, and although he is not a leader from their faction, his selection marks a win for them. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus also endorsed him in recent days.

In Connecticut’s top job, much of Cardona’s attention has been focused on the coronavirus pandemic. After schools closed, he worked to procure devices for students who needed them to participate in remote schooling and pushed to reopen buildings.

When teachers unions demanded that the state meet certain safety precautions before opening buildings, Cardona replied: “We will continue to do everything we can to ensure as many children as possible have access to opportunities for in-person learning.”

Cardona added that closed schools were the result of staffing shortages, not evidence of virus transmission.

That record dovetails with Biden’s focus on trying to get schools reopened. He has called on districts to resume in-person teaching within his first 100 days in office. The new education secretary’s first task will be to help guide schools through the final phase of the pandemic.

Cardona has also focused his attention on equity issues and voiced concern that the pandemic was exacerbating inequities among students. Under his tenure, Connecticut became the first state to require high schools to offer courses on Black and Latino studies. Earlier, he served as co-chairman of a state task force examining achievement gaps.

As a candidate, Biden promised to address the shortfalls of U.S. education primarily through increased funding, a sharp departure from Trump, who repeatedly proposed deep cuts to the federal education budget and billions of dollars in tax credits to subsidize tuition to private schools.

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Biden’s plan is also a shift from Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, who focused on structural revisions and increased accountability for results. Those ideas angered teachers unions and others because they relied in part on testing to assess the effectiveness of schools and teachers.

Biden proposed tripling the $15 billion Title I funds that support high-poverty schools and said he would double the number of psychologists, counselors, nurses and social workers in schools, provide new money for school infrastructure and dramatically increase federal spending for special education.

He also proposed forgiving college debt and making community college free.