Update: Dec. 23, 2020: President-elect Joe Biden's transition team announced Tuesday night that Connecticut Commissioner of Education Miguel A. Cardona is his choice to head the U.S. Department of Education. Cardona still needs to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate.
Miguel A. Cardona, Connecticut’s Commissioner of Education and a former elementary school teacher and principal, is reportedly to be nominated as the 12th secretary of the U.S. Department of Education to serve in the incoming Biden administration.
Several education-related groups have voiced support for the pick, praising Cardona’s experience as an educator and advocate for equity in education. As a child, Cardona was an English learner and later received his master’s degree in bilingual education.
Cardona, whose nomination nearly fills all President-elect Joe Biden’s cabinet choices, needs to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate, which will likely be scheduled soon after the Presidential Inauguration Jan. 20.
If Cardona is confirmed by the Senate, he will start a challenging tenure in charge of the Education Department's efforts to guide state and local public school systems through pandemic recovery efforts that will include the safe reopening of school buildings and educators’ responses to learning losses.
President-elect Biden has said he and his team will work with states and localities to support a majority of schools reopening for in-person learning by the end of his first 100 days in office, provided funding is available. As Connecticut’s top education official, Cardona has supported the safe reopening of schools and, like many state leaders, has issued guidance on protocols for how best to mitigate COVID-19 spread in schools.
“As a former public school teacher, he will lead the effort to invest in all students, support educators and make reopening schools a national priority,” the Biden-Harris Presidential Transition team wrote on Twitter Dec. 22.
According to the Alma Exley Scholarship Program, which awarded Cardona as a scholar in 1998, he has been a longtime proponent of equitable education initiatives and has voiced concern certain students were suffering in greater ways due to the pandemic’s toll.
Cardona was appointed his state's education commissioner in August 2019. Just months later, when news broke that nearby New York City was emerging as a pandemic hotspot, the Connecticut State Department of Education worked with districts to get all students devices as children learned from their homes. As the pandemic jumped into a new school year, the focus became the ability to provide face-to-face instruction, according to guidance documents from the department.
Connecticut also publicly posts the number of positive COVID-19 cases of all staff and students, with the information updated weekly. The portal says investigations have shown a majority of infections have occurred outside school communities.
Cardona's nomination has received support from several education-related groups, including administrative organizations and groups representing teacher unions and public charter schools.
“Dr. Cardona has dedicated his career to creating a more equitable education system, and as Secretary of Education, I know he will continue to prioritize equity, particularly for historically marginalized students,” said Council of Chief State School Officers CEO Carissa Moffat Miller, in a posting on the CCSSO website.
In a statement, National Education Association President Becky Pringle said of Cardona, “As a former public-school teacher, he understands what’s at stake for students and promises to respect the voice of educators as we work to safely reopen school buildings, colleges, and university campuses, while also forging a path to transform public education into a racially and socially just and equitable system that is designed to prepare every student to succeed in a diverse and interdependent world.”
Before being named education commissioner, Cardona, 45, spent his career as an educator in Connecticut's Meriden Public Schools, where he attended school as a child and entered formal schooling as an English learner, according to The CT Mirror. The publication said his grandparents were from Puerto Rico.
Meriden Public Schools Superintendent Mark Benigni, who hired Cardona to work in the district’s central office in 2013, said Cardona “understands the balance that a public school system really needs to make sure that we support our learners who need us most, whether that's English learners or students in special education programs, but also that we need to challenge our highest performers and make sure that they have opportunities for advanced placement and early college experience courses. He believes public education provides opportunities for all kids."
Cardona received a bachelor’s degree from Central Connecticut State University. At the University of Connecticut, he earned his master’s in bilingual/bicultural education, a doctorate in education and an Executive Leadership Program certificate, according to the state education website. His doctoral dissertation is titled, “Sharpening the Focus of Political Will to Address Achievement Disparities.”
He returned to Meriden, which currently has 8,600 students, to teach 4th grade, and at age 27 became principal at Hanover Elementary School. Cardona was named a National Distinguished Principal in 2012 by the National Association of Elementary School Principals. In 2013, he became the district’s assistant superintendent for teaching and learning. He also served as the co-chairperson of the Connecticut Legislative Achievement Gap Task Force, as well as co-chairperson of the Connecticut Birth to Grade Three Leaders Council.
Furthermore, Cardona was an adjunct professor of educational leadership at University of Connecticut, according to the state website.
Benigni said while Cardona was an administrator with Meriden Public Schools, he was instrumental in increasing restorative practices, which helped lower expulsions and suspensions. Cardona's efforts helped to increase access to Advanced Placement courses for underrepresented students, Benigni said.
Cardona also worked collaboratively and effectively with teacher unions and community agencies and philanthropic organizations, the superintendent said. “I think some of those things he will bring to D.C. and I think some of our success is clearly tied to those partnerships,” Benigni said.
In a 2018 essay published by TEACH Connecticut, Cardona wrote that when he was asked by the Meriden superintendent to consider teaching 4th grade in his hometown, he remembers thinking “teaching is not a job; it’s an extension of you as a person.” He also wrote that he chose not to teach bilingual education because he wanted non-English learners to see a Latino in other roles.
“Equity became a foundation for my passion around this time,” he wrote.