The Senate voted Monday to confirm Miguel Cardona as Secretary of Education, clearing his way to lead President Joe Biden’s effort to reopen the nation’s schools amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Cardona, 45, a former public school teacher who became Connecticut’s director of education, was approved on a 64-33 vote.
He takes over the Department of Education amid mounting tension between Americans who believe students can safely return to the classroom now, and others who say the risks are still too great.
Although his position has limited authority to force schools to reopen, Cardona will be asked to play a central role in achieving Biden’s goal of having most elementary schools open five days a week within their earliest 100 days. You will be tasked with guiding schools through the reopening process and sharing best practices on how to teach during a pandemic.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a roadmap last month for students to return to classrooms safely. The agency said masks, social distancing and other strategies should be used, but vaccinating teachers is not a prerequisite for reopening.
Cardona, who drew attention for her efforts to reopen schools in Connecticut, has vowed that her top priority is to reopen schools. At his Senate confirmation hearing last month, he said there are “great examples across our country of schools that have been able to reopen safely.”
The debate has turned into a political firestorm for Biden, who is caught between competing interests as his goal is to get students into the classroom without provoking the powerful teacher unions that helped put him in the White House. He says his goal of getting students back into the classroom is possible if Congress passes his aid plan, which includes $ 130 billion for the nation’s schools.
Republicans have chided Biden for failing to reopen schools faster, while teacher unions opposed the administration’s decision to continue the standardized tests required by the federal government during the pandemic.
However, the tricky terrain is nothing new for Cardona, who faced similar stress during the Connecticut pandemic and who earned initial praise even from Biden’s critics.
Republicans in Congress have applauded Cardona’s efforts to reopen schools in Connecticut, with some seeing him as a potential ally in their support of charter schools. Teachers, for their part, see you as a partner who brings years of experience in education and knows the demands of teaching.
The nomination continues with a meteoric rise for Cardona, who was appointed to head Connecticut’s education department in 2019 after spending 20 years working in public schools in Meriden, Connecticut, the same district he attended as a child.
He began his career as a fourth grade teacher before becoming the youngest principal in the state at age 28. In 2012, he was named Connecticut Principal of the Year and in 2015 he became the district’s assistant superintendent. When he was appointed state commissioner of education, he became the first Latino to hold the position.
Cardona grew up in a public housing project in Meriden, raised by parents who came to Connecticut from Puerto Rico as children. Throughout her career, she has focused on closing educational gaps and supporting bilingual education. It’s a personal problem for Cardona, who says she only spoke Spanish when she entered kindergarten and had a hard time learning English.
Cardona was the first in his family to graduate from college and his three degrees include a doctorate in education from the University of Connecticut. He and his wife, Marissa, have two children in high school.
Her deep roots in public education fit the criteria that Biden was looking for in a secretary of education. During his campaign, Biden promised to choose a secretary with experience in public education. He intended to contrast with then-Secretary Betsy DeVos, a Michigan billionaire who spent decades advocating for school choice policies.
In an increasingly fragmented educational world, Cardona has promised to be a unifier. At his confirmation hearing, he promised to engage with “the vast and diverse community of people who have an interest in education.” He added that “we gain strength by coming together.”
As you work to help schools reopen, you will also be tasked with helping them address the damage the pandemic has caused on student learning. He has echoed Biden’s call for more funding for education, saying schools will need to expand academic summer programs and hire more counselors to help students with mental health issues.
You are also likely to face early testing as you weigh how much flexibility to give states while administering standardized tests. Last week, the Department of Education directed states to continue annual testing, but said the assessments could be offered online or delayed until the fall. The agency also offered the possibility that states could be granted “additional evaluation flexibility” in certain cases.
Some states are already pushing for that additional flexibility, including Michigan, which is requesting to replace state tests with local “benchmark” assessments that were administered this year. It will be up to Cardona to decide how much leniency to provide.
Republicans have also set the stage for a fight over transgender athletes. At last month’s hearing, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., Raised objections to policies that allow transgender girls to participate in women’s athletics. It is the subject of a legal battle in Connecticut, where some cisgender athletes are challenging a state policy that allows transgender students to participate as their identified gender.
Pressured by Paul to take a position on the issue, Cardona said he would support the right of “all students, including students who are transgender.”