President Joe Biden's nominee for U.S. Secretary of Education, Dr. Miguel Cardona, the commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Education, is promising to help reopen schools but says much of the hardest work will come after that as schools try to address long-standing disparities worsened by the pandemic.
“These inequities will endure, and prevent the potential of this great country, unless tackled head-on,” 45-year-old Cardona said in testimony prepared for a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday. “And so it is our responsibility, and it would be my greatest privilege, if confirmed, to forge opportunity out of this crisis.”
Cardona, the child of parents who moved from Puerto Rico to Connecticut, grew up in Meriden and attended Meriden Public Schools, graduating from Wilcox Technical High School. He then went on to work in that very same school system.
During his nomination hearing, he said that education opened doors for him. While that is the power of promise, that promise if not kept for every student and he wants to make sure that education is "door to opportunity" for all students.
“I’m proud to say I was born at the Yale Lakers housing projects. That’s where my parents, Hector and Sarah Cardona, instilled early on the importance of hard work, service to community and education,” Cardona said with a slight emotional crack in his voice as he accepted Biden’s nomination.
Cardona, 45, said he was the first in his family to graduate from college and become a teacher, a principal, an assistant superintendent “in the same community that gave me so much.”
He attended Central Connecticut State University for his bachelor’s degree and UConn, where he completed his master’s in bilingual/bicultural education, Administrator Preparation Program, doctorate in Education, and Executive Leadership Program certificate.
He emphasized his goals to open schools safely, "boldly address education inequities head-on," to remove "silos" in education and for graduation from high school to provide paths to college and career opportunities.
Cardona became Connecticut's state education chief in 2019 after spending years as a teacher and administrator in the public school district in Meriden, Connecticut, which he also attended as a child. If confirmed, he is expected to play a pivotal role in supporting schools as they recover from a crisis that has laid bare many of their shortcomings.
In his testimony, Cardona called this school year one of the most challenging in American history and said it has taken a tremendous toll on students, parents and educators. The father of two high school students added that he has “lived those challenges alongside millions of families.”
On his list of priorities, reopening schools is only the start. He promised to “remove silos” in education and promote innovation, make college accessible to any student and strengthen community colleges.
“Investing in public education changes lives and saves lives,” he said. “I’ve seen it. I’ve lived it. And I know that our challenges ahead are problems we can overcome together.”
He is a lifelong champion of public schools, while Betsy DeVos, the Trump administration's education secretary, spent her career promoting school choice policies that help students attend private schools or other alternatives to traditional public schools.
Cardona furthered that contrast while describing his modest upbringing, saying he felt rich even though he “didn’t always have a lot of material possessions.” DeVos' father was a Michigan industrialist who become a billionaire, and she is married to Dick DeVos, the heir to the Amway marketing fortune.
Cardona was raised in a housing project by parents who came to Connecticut from Puerto Rico as children. He has recounted the challenges he faced when he entered kindergarten speaking only Spanish. He later went on to earn a master's degree in bilingual education before receiving a doctorate in education from the University of Connecticut.
His deep roots in public education are partly what made him a contender to lead the Education Department. During his presidential campaign, Biden promised to nominate someone with experience in public education, saying it would mark a reversal from DeVos.
If confirmed, Cardona would quickly face several key policy questions about the pandemic, including whether to allow states to cancel standardized testing this spring. Some states have requested permission to forgo their annual tests, but some advocates say testing is needed to help schools identify learning gaps and address them.
The Education Department's acting secretary has already accepted Biden's recommendation to pause federal student loan payments and to keep interest rates at zero percent through at least Sept. 30.
Beyond reopening schools, Cardona would be tasked with carrying out a Biden education agenda that includes universal preschool and a plan to make public colleges free for families with incomes below $125,000.
“He will help us address systemic inequities, tackle the mental health crisis in our education system, give educators a well-deserved raise, ease the burden of education debt, and secure high-quality, universal pre-K for every three-and four year-old in the country,” Biden said in a statement.
Cardona, who has been Connecticut’s commissioner of education since August 2019, is set to be part of a historically diverse cabinet and his parents hope it sends a message to children in our state and worldwide.
“And I, being bilingual and bicultural, am as American as apple pie and rice and beans," he said during his nomination acceptance speech.
Mugs with that quote have been sold to benefit the Meriden Puerto Rican Festival Scholarship Fund, which benefits high school seniors in Meriden.