If Miguel Cardona, the top education chief in Connecticut and president-elect Joe Biden’s nominee for education secretary, is confirmed, his agenda will stretch from early education to K-12 to higher education and adult learning, and include the major lift of reopening schools for in-person learning as the coronavirus pandemic rages on – a gauntlet Biden set for his first 100 days.
“He is a secretary of education for this moment,” Biden said in introducing him to the country last week.
In accepting the nomination, Cardona also accepts a breathtaking to-do list, including the behemoth task of getting the country’s public school system back open and overseeing a potentially historic infusion of federal dollars for poor students and those with disabilities. And as he acquaints himself better with the major players in Washington, he’s finding that to-do list growing longer by the day.
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On the K-12 side of things, civil rights groups have been pining to reinstate a slew of Obama-era regulations overturned by the Trump administration, including guidance aimed at reducing discipline of Black and Latino students and students with disabilities, protecting the rights of transgender students to use the bathroom of their choice and clawing back the Trump administration’s new Title IX rules that bolster the rights of students accused of sexual assault and harrassment.
“Under the Biden-Harris administration, we look forward to the Department returning to its role of protecting rather than eroding students’ civil rights,” more than 100 civil rights and advocacy groups wrote to Biden regarding the Trump administration’s new Title IX rules on campus sexual assault.
And as part of the national reckoning over systemic racism, many are also looking for the incoming administration to address the presence of police in schools, as well as various ways to better integrate schools and funnel resources to communities that have been most severely impacted by redlining.
State school chiefs, among whom Cardona counts himself, are most concerned about whether the new administration will provide them flexibility with regard to the annual testing and accountability requirements of the federal K-12 law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, given how intense the learning loss has been as a result of the ongoing pandemic and how millions of students haven’t stepped foot in a classroom since March.
“The reality is that exactly how states collect and report this data may need to look different this school year, depending on the impact of COVID-19 on each state’s education system,” they wrote earlier this month in a letter to the incoming administration. “For this reason, states must have the flexibility from federally approved accountability measures tied to statewide summative assessments in the 2020-21 school year.”
Teachers unions, principals and superintendents are all lobbying for Congress to greenlight Biden’s call to triple federal funding for Title I and IDEA for schools serving lots of poor students and students with disabilities. And teachers unions, in particular, whose members played a major role in his election, plan to hold Biden at his word when he committed to boosting teacher salaries, providing more support staff in the form of counselors, nurses and librarians and elevating the role of labor unions.
Other items on Cardona’s list, should he be confirmed, would include closing the digital divide for the estimated 12 to 16 million children who lack reliable internet access and devices to learn remotely, directing federal funding to schools for infrastructure costs and establishing a universal early education system.
And then there’s higher education, where Cardona would be tasked with overseeing the cancelation of at least some student loan debt, making community college free and reinstating regulations on the for-profit college sector, including making it easier for students who have been defrauded by their schools to have their federal loans relieved. He’d also oversee a substantial investment in historically Back colleges and universities and teacher preparation programs.
Cardona, a newcomer to the national education scene, is a strategic pick for Biden’s team. He checks a lot of boxes, having served as a teacher, principal, district superintendent and most recently as the head of Connecticut’s Education Department. He’s been in classrooms and in management. He has experience trying to close achievement gaps, establishing pre-kindergarten programs and finding ways to keep schools open amid a pandemic.
Having spent the entirety of his education career in Connecticut – and only the last year-and-a-half in the state’s top post – has allowed him to, for the most part, sidestep the education policy wars of the last decade. He’s not afraid to push back against teachers unions, but, as a former member of one himself, he’s rarely had to. And while he doesn’t go out of his way to support charter schools, he’s also not on a warpath against them.
He grew up in public housing, speaking Spanish, and was classified as an English learner in school. His parents moved to Connecticut from Puerto Rico before he was born. He was the first in his family to go to college.
In a sense, he comes to the position with a little bit of something for everyone.
Indeed, in the current hyper-partisan atmosphere, his nomination was received warmly by every national education organization, from teachers unions to private school choice advocates to civil rights groups – a sharp contrast to the warring statements they’ve grown accustomed to lobbing over the last four years.
Cardona himself had to agree: “There is a saying in Spanish,” he said upon accepting his nomination. “En la union esta la fuerza. We gain strength from joining together.”
“In that spirit,” he said, “I look forward to sitting at the table with educators, parents, caregivers, students, advocates and state, local and tribal leaders.”
Despite the long to-do list, in addition to the No. 1 priority of getting school reopened for in-person learning, Washington insiders expect Biden and his team to make good on a number of the items within his first few months.
A survey conducted by Whiteboard Advisers earlier this month shows that a majority of current and former White House and Education Department officials, current and former congressional staff, state education leaders, including current and former state chiefs and governors, and heads of major education organizations and think tanks expect Biden and his team to waive the federal testing and accountability requirements, take action to relieve at least some student loan debt, propose new regulations to clamp down on the for-profit college industry and begin to address desegregation issues all within the first year.
Cardona, for his part, says he’s up to the challenge.
“There are no shortage of challenges ahead, no shortage of problems for us to solve,” he said. “For too many students, public education in America has been a ‘flor palida’: a wilted rose, neglected, in need of care. We must be the master gardeners who cultivate it, who work every day to preserve its beauty and its purpose.”