Conn. education head Miguel Cardona, nominee for US education secretary, vows to tackle problems worsened by coronavirus

President Joe Biden’s nominee for education secretary is promising to help reopen schools but says much of the hardest work will come after that as schools try to address long-standing disparities worsened by the pandemic.

“These inequities will endure, and prevent the potential of this great country, unless tackled head-on,” Miguel Cardona said in testimony prepared for a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing Wednesday. “And so it is our responsibility, and it would be my greatest privilege, if confirmed, to forge opportunity out of this crisis.”

Cardona, 45, became Connecticut’s state education chief in 2019 after spending years as a teacher and administrator in the public school district in Meriden, Conn., which he also attended as a child. If confirmed, he is expected to play a pivotal role in supporting schools as they recover from a crisis that has laid bare many of their shortcomings.

In his testimony, Cardona called this school year one of the most challenging in American history and said it has taken a tremendous toll on students, parents, and educators. The father of two high school students added that he has “lived those challenges alongside millions of families.”

On his list of priorities, reopening schools is only the start. He promised to “remove silos” in education and promote innovation, make college accessible to any student, and strengthen community colleges.

“Investing in public education changes lives and saves lives,” he said. “I’ve seen it. I’ve lived it. And I know that our challenges ahead are problems we can overcome together.”

He is a lifelong champion of public schools, while Betsy DeVos, the Trump administration’s education secretary, spent her career promoting school choice policies that help students attend private schools or other alternatives to traditional public schools.

Cardona furthered that contrast while describing his modest upbringing, saying he felt rich even though he “didn’t always have a lot of material possessions.” DeVos’ father was a Michigan industrialist who become a billionaire, and she is married to Dick DeVos, the heir to the Amway marketing fortune.

Cardona was raised in a housing project by parents who came to Connecticut from Puerto Rico as children. He has recounted the challenges he faced when he entered kindergarten speaking only Spanish. He later went on to earn a master’s degree in bilingual education before receiving a doctorate in education from the University of Connecticut.

His deep roots in public education are partly what made him a contender to lead the Education Department. During his presidential campaign, Biden promised to nominate someone with experience in public education, saying it would mark a reversal from DeVos.

If confirmed, Cardona would quickly face several key policy questions about the pandemic, including whether to allow states to cancel standardized testing this spring. Some states have requested permission to forgo their annual tests, but some advocates say testing is needed to help schools identify learning gaps and address them.

The Education Department’s acting secretary has already accepted Biden’s recommendation to pause federal student loan payments and to keep interest rates at zero percent through at least Sept. 30.

Beyond reopening schools, Cardona would be tasked with carrying out a Biden education agenda that includes universal preschool and a plan to make public colleges free for families with incomes below $125,000.