This story was updated at 7:30 p.m.
President-elect Joe Biden has selected Connecticut Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona for the job of leading the U.S. Department of Education.
If confirmed by the Senate, Cardona would take the reins of the department during a pivotal time in education as the pandemic keeps many school buildings across the country closed and evidence mounts that students are falling behind.
Biden has said one of his top three COVID-19 priorities for his first 100 days in office is to “reopen the majority of schools” — a challenge Cardona took on as Connecticut’s education commissioner with mixed results. An advocate for reopening schools, Cardona has so far resisted calls from parents to order superintendents to hold in-person classes and from teachers’ unions to order schools closed.
Instead, his agency has issued a plethora of guidance to help district leaders open and has used federal pandemic aid to buy masks, plexiglass, laptops and internet access so that every student has the ability to learn from home.
He’s also used the public spotlight to call out the “education emergency” school closures are causing, releasing data that shows the state’s most disadvantaged students are missing twice as much remote school as their peers attending in-person. The administration has also tracked COVID-19 cases in districts throughout the state, which Cardona regularly points to as proof that the virus is not spreading in schools.
Roughly one-third of Connecticut’s public school students currently have the ability to attend school in person full-time.
While all eyes may be on how Cardona and Biden will approach reopening schools, Cardona’s long history as an educator provides some insight into how he will approach the job post-pandemic.
Cardona — who introduced himself to state legislators during his confirmation hearing last year as “a goofy little Puerto Rican” who was born in public housing in Meriden — is the son of a retired police officer with an award-winning mustache, the first in his family to go to college, the father of two public high school students, and the bongo player in the holiday parranda.
Cardona, 45, spent the first five years of his career teaching elementary students in Meriden before becoming principal for the next 10 at another high-needs elementary school in the district.
Cardona, whose grandparents moved here from Puerto Rico in search of a better life, spoke no English when he started school.
His background as an English learner will be especially useful as the nation’s top education official. The U.S. Department of Education reports one out of every 11 public school students in the country is an English learner.
“I had to learn how to code-switch early. At first it was with language, but it soon became necessary for other nuances of the cultures in which I was immersed,” he wrote about himself on a website that aims to recruit other people of color into teaching. “Like many, I remember what it felt like to be on the wrong side of a stereotype, and I felt it was my purpose in education to evolve the thinking of the next generation.”
Vying to become the state’s first Latino education commissioner in a state with some of the largest gaps in the nation in achievement between Latino students and their white classmates, Cardona said Connecticut’s future relies on narrowing these yawning disparities.
“Education is the great equalizer. It was for me,” said Cardona during his 2019 confirmation hearing. “Our success as a state will be dependent upon how we support students who are learning English as a second language.”
If confirmed, he will become the second Puerto Rican to be U.S. Education Secretary. So far, Biden has nominated two other Latinos to his cabinet, Axios reported Monday.
While Cardona considered becoming a bilingual teacher so that he could help students like himself, he decided against it because he felt it was important for non-bilingual students to see Latinos in professional capacities. Much of his career has been spent figuring out how to improve the education English learners receive no matter what classroom they are in.
His doctoral dissertation in 2011 for the University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education offers a roadmap into what he thinks needs to happen to improve the education received by English learners.
The dissertation — titled “Sharpening the Focus of Political Will to Address Achievement Disparities” — reveals his frustration with the “patterns of complacency” for English learners who have led to “institutional predeterminations.” He complained of limited opportunities to participate in extracurricular activities and access to reading materials in Spanish.
“Without a focused commitment of political will among educational leaders to make the necessary improvements in academic programs, gaps in student achievement will likely persist,” he wrote of English learners in Connecticut. “From my perspective, it seems that the normalization of failure of the ELL students continues to influence practices.”
Cardona is also a fan of embracing a student’s native language and encouraging districts to set up dual-language programs so they and their classmates can learn their core subjects in Spanish or another language. One of the first schools Cardona took his boss, Gov. Ned Lamont, to visit was a dual language school in Norwalk.
“I think the key thing is making sure we provide support in their native language. We don’t want kids to come in and lose their first language while learning a second language,” Cardona said about research that shows the positive affects dual-language programs offer. “It’s really crucial as a state we recognize the assets our English learners have.”
Cardona went to Wilcox Technical High School after gaining a spot through a lottery. There he concentrated on automotive studies, though he defied expectations that he would become a mechanic and instead went to college, where at first he felt out of place.
“I recall as an 18-year-old walking through the hallways here at Central [Connecticut State University], a freshman who is the first in his entire family to go to college, being confused, unsure of myself, lacking confidence, and unsure of how to get ahead. I wondered if this college thing was going to work out for me,” he told Central Connecticut State University graduates in 2019.
And while he has gone on to earn four degrees, he doesn’t want students being routed to a specific career or college path.
“One of the things I want to guard against is tracking or saying to an eighth grader, ‘You’re college bound, You’re not that’ — that to me perpetuates inequities,” he said. “We have a lot of students sitting in our high schools today who need hands-on experiences, who want to build things, who want to develop things, who want to manufacture, who want to want to go into IT, go into business. And oftentimes, we have students who don’t take those opportunities, because they’re going to be less likely to be looked at by colleges.”
The vocational high school Cardona attended is part of a network of trade schools operated by the state.
Cardona’s record on his approach to other lottery schools is a bit shallow. That’s because in Meriden, where he served as a top administrator for the bulk of his career, there was never an application for a new magnet or charter school to open during his tenure.
As state commissioner, Cardona played a key role in negotiating an agreement to offer more Hartford students attending segregated schools the opportunity to enroll in diverse magnet schools. On charter schools, the legislature is responsible for providing the funding to open additional charters, and his department with the State Board of Education is responsible for approving their applications outlining their educational approaches and renewing their certificates to operate.
Under his leadership, the education department has renewed every charter that was due and has not approved any additional schools for the legislature to consider opening.
Asked about charter schools during his confirmation hearing, Cardona said he’d rather focus his energy making sure neighborhood public schools are viable options.
“Charter schools provide choice for parents that are seeking choice, so I think it’s a viable option, but [neighborhood schools] that’s going to be the core work that not only myself but the people behind me in the agency that I represent will have while I’m commissioner,” he said.
Charter school advocates and public school officials say they see him as even-keeled when it comes to school choice.
“I haven’t found him to be pro-charter or anti-charter. It doesn’t seem like he’s focused on governance and structure. What he is focused on are great schools for kids. And I think just more broadly, I haven’t found him to be driven by ideology and politics,” said Dacia Toll, the chief executive officer of Achievement First, which operates the largest network of charter schools in Connecticut and also has schools in Rhode Island and New York. “He is more focused on making sure every kid gets an excellent education than the type of school they go to.”