Does Biden’s nominee for education secretary break mold?

If confirmed, Connecticut Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona will represent dramatic shift from Betsy DeVos

In choosing Miguel Cardona, the 45-year-old Connecticut education commissioner, as his nominee for secretary of education, President-elect Joe Biden chose someone who’s been on the ground for his entire career rather than on a national stage.

Cardona is a relative unknown, only holding his appointed leadership job in Connecticut for 16 months and spending most of that time responding to the COVID crisis in his state’s public schools. As an educator, Cardona worked in the same small Connecticut district where he was educated, moving up quickly in the Meriden Public Schools and becoming a principal by age 28. Of Puerto Rican descent, Cardona is the first in his family to graduate college.

A panel of American University experts discussed Cardona’s nomination and its implications during a webinar Wednesday. They agreed Cardona represented a sea change from the current education secretary, Betsy DeVos, who essentially ignored public schools in her four years in office to promote school choice.

Cardona also signals a departure from prior ed secretaries, said Jennifer L. Steele, associate professor in AU’s School of Education, focusing on education policy and the economics of education at the P-12 and postsecondary levels.

“Cardona is not coming out of the reform movement. He is not a charter school leader, and he is not a big city superintendent, as (Arne) Duncan and (Rod) Paige were. He is not a kind of plutocrat as DeVos was or a political adviser as (Margaret) Spelling was. Because he is not strongly affiliated with either side, teacher unions or the reform movement, it signals a middle of the road approach -- we are going to put the needs of children first and try to lay politics aside as much as possible,” said Steele.

In the press conference Wednesday to announce Cardona’s nomination, Biden began by introducing himself as, “Dr. Jill Biden’s husband. Just like educators everywhere, being an educator isn’t what she does; it’s who she is. Once again, during this pandemic, we have seen who our educators are. They are selfless; they are dedicated; they are cut from a true cloth of character and commitment. They represent one of the most critical professions in America, and that’s not hyperbole. That’s a fact.”

Saying the nation’s schools are at a critical moment, Biden said it’s vital the new secretary of education brings a background as a teacher, as Cardona does.

“He is a secretary of education for this moment,” said Biden. “He is brilliant. He is qualified. He is tested. We knew we needed a secretary of education who truly understands what it has been like for educators, administrators, families, caregivers and students this past year. They worry. They’re under stress. They struggle with local budgets that have left educators out of work. There are mixed signals from the White House that created more confusion than calm. We also need someone who knows what it takes to get through this crisis. Reopening schools safety will be a national priority for the Biden-Harris administration.”

Speaking after Biden, Cardona said, “I know how challenging this year has been for students, for educators and for parents. I’ve lived those challenges alongside millions of Americans families. Not only in my role as state education commissioner, but as a public-school parent and a former public-school classroom teacher. For so many of our schools and far too many of our students, this unprecedented year has piled on crisis after crisis. It’s taken some of our most painful longtime disparities and wrenched them open even wider.”

Addressing those disparities must be a priority for Cardona, said American University’s Taryn Morrissey, a child-development and education policy expert who studies early-childhood education and childhood development. She is a co-author of “Cradle to Kindergarten: A New Plan to Combat Inequality.”

“The pandemic has widened and highlighted gaps in our nation’s education system that have been pervasive for decades,” said Morrissey. “These problems are not new and not evenly felt, but now they are worse.”