The Senate voted Monday to confirm Miguel Cardona as education secretary and paved the way for leading President Joe Biden’s efforts to reopen the nation’s schools amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Cardona, 45, a former public schoolteacher who went on to become Connecticut’s head of education, was approved by a vote of 64-33.
He takes responsibility for the education department amid rising tensions between Americans, who believe students can safely return to the classroom now, and others who say the risk is still too great.
Although his position has limited authority to force schools to reopen, Cardona will be asked to play a key role in achieving Biden̵
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last month released a roadmap to get students back in classrooms safely. The agency said masks, social distancing and other strategies should be used, but vaccination of teachers was not a prerequisite for reopening.
Cardona, which received attention for its efforts to reopen schools in Connecticut, has promised to make it a top priority to reopen schools. At his confirmation hearing in the Senate last month, he said there are “good examples across our country of schools that have been able to reopen safely.”
The debate has become a political firestorm for Biden, caught between competing interests, as he aims to get students into the classroom without provoking the powerful teachers’ associations that helped place him in the White House. He says his goal of returning students to the classroom is possible if Congress approves his emergency plan, which includes $ 130 billion for the country’s schools.
Republicans have reprimanded Biden for not reopening schools more quickly, while teachers’ unions opposed the administration’s decision to continue with federally required standardized tests during the pandemic.
The difficult terrain is nothing new for Cardona, who, however, faced a similar tension in navigating the pandemic in Connecticut, and who has received early praise even from Biden’s critics.
Republicans in Congress have welcomed Cardona’s efforts to reopen schools in Connecticut, and some see him as a potential ally in their support for charter schools. Meanwhile, teachers see him as a partner who brings many years of experience in education and knows the requirements of teaching.
The nomination continues a meteoric rise for Cardona, who was named head of 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 state’s youngest principal at age 28. In 2012, he was named Connecticut’s principal for the year, and in 2015, he became assistant superintendent in the district. When he was appointed State Commissioner for Education, he became the first Latino to fill 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 his career, he has focused on closing educational gaps and supporting bilingual education. It’s a personal question for Cardona, who says he only spoke Spanish when he went to kindergarten and struggled to learn 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.
His deep roots in public schooling fit the criteria that Biden was looking for in an education secretary. During his campaign, Biden promised to elect a secretary with experience in public education. It was meant to draw a contrast with then-secretary Betsy DeVos, a Michigan billionaire who spent decades choosing school policies.
In an increasingly fractionated world of education, Cardona has promised to be an association. At his confirmation hearing, he promised to engage with “the large, diverse community of people who have a stake in education.” He added that “we gain strength by going together.”
As he works to help schools reopen, he is also tasked with helping them tackle the damage that the pandemic has done to student learning. He has reiterated Biden’s call for funding for further education, saying schools will need to expand academic programs in the summer and hire more counselors to help students with mental health issues.
He is also likely to face an early test as he weighs how much flexibility there is to give states when administering standardized tests. Last week, the Department of Education ordered states to continue annual testing, but said assessments could be offered online or delayed until fall. The agency also ruled out the possibility for states to have “additional assessment flexibility” in certain cases.
Some states are already pushing for the extra flexibility, including Michigan, which is asking to replace state tests with local “benchmark” assessments administered this year. It will be up to Cardona to decide how much relief to deliver.
Republicans have also set the stage for a battle for transgender athletes. At last month’s hearing, Senator Rand Paul, R-Ky., Raised objections to policies that allow transgender girls to participate in girls’ 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.
Under pressure from Paul to address the issue, Cardona said he would support the right of “all students, including transgender students.”