Connecticut education commissioner Miguel Cardona, a Meriden native who rose through the ranks in the city’s public schools from teacher to principal to administrator, has been selected by President-elect Joe Biden to be the next U.S. education secretary.
After days of speculation, the next president made the formal announcement Tuesday night, lauding Cardona as an “experienced and dedicated public school teacher” who can help guide every school to reopen safely and better equip all students for the future.
“He will help us address systemic inequities, tackle the mental health crisis in our education system, give educators a well-deserved raise, ease the burden of education debt, and secure high-quality, universal pre-K for every three- and four year-old in the country,” Biden said in a statement. “As a lifelong champion of public education, he understands that our children are the kite strings that keep our national ambitions aloft — and that everything that will be possible for our country tomorrow will be thanks to the investments we make and the care that our educators and our schools deliver today.”
Gov. Ned Lamont appointed Cardona, 45, as education commissioner in August 2019. He was the first Latino to hold the position. A fourth-grade teacher in the city where he grew up, Cardona was the youngest principal in the state when he took the job at Hanover Elementary School in 2003. In 2012, he traveled to Washington, D.C. as Connecticut’s National Distinguished Principal. A year later, he became the assistant superintendent for teaching and learning in his hometown.
Lamont on Tuesday called Cardona “another Connecticut superstar.”
“That’s a loss for Connecticut, but it’s a big win for kids and teachers, and education around the country,” he said during a news conference. “We’re fortunate that Miguel was able to take the lead here in the state for close to two years, fortunate that he worked very closely with teachers [and] kept our schools open.”
Lamont added: “I think these are all things that were very important to President-elect Biden. I wish him all the best.”
Cardona has credited his “journey as a goofy, little Puerto Rican kid” born in a Meriden public housing complex to public office to the sacrifices of his parents and grandparents, as well as access to schooling. Cardona has also shared that he entered kindergarten only speaking Spanish and struggled to learn English.
“The passion I have for public education stems from my belief that it is the best lever for economic success and prosperity in Connecticut,” Cardona told lawmakers during his confirmation hearing in February. “And the belief that public education is still the great equalizer. It was for me.”
After attending public schools in Meriden, Cardona graduated from the state-run Wilcox Technical High School in the city before attending Central Connecticut State University for his bachelor’s degree and earning his master’s, doctorate and superintendent certification at UConn. Cardona wrote his dissertation on the role of political will in addressing achievement disparities, calling the topic “a passion of mine,” in an article he wrote for Teach Connecticut.
He and his wife, Marissa Pérez Cardona, have two children who attend Meriden public schools.
“Miguel Cardona is an exceptional leader and a great educator, but an even better person,” said Meriden Superintendent of Schools Mark Benigni, who worked with Cardona for nearly a decade.
Benigni called Cardona’s life story and achievements “tremendous.”
“We should all feel comfortable knowing we have someone who is going to work hard, who is compassionate, is understanding,” he said. “But, who is also a fierce competitor, wants to get great results for kids and will never give up on a student or a staff member.”
Benigni said the nation should expect to see an education secretary who embraces partnerships with unions, grant funders and foundations, and who “believes technology can help level the playing field.” He added that Cardona understands the “delicate balance that public schools need to be for everyone,” from supporting the most vulnerable students in a district to challenging top performers.
“I hope that Miguel takes to the capital that public education … can change student’s and families lives forever, and that we need to continue to embrace and invest in our public schools systems,” he said.
Cardona served as co-chair of the Connecticut Legislative Achievement Gap Task Force, while chairing its English Learners subgroup. He said the task force “produced a report which to this day contains some of the most bold and progressive recommendations for improving education and addressing opportunity and outcome gaps by race and ZIP code.”
“We need to address inequities in education and we need better pathways to success,” he told lawmakers at his confirmation hearing, calling students’ social and emotional learning “just as important as their academic growth.”
Cardona also received support from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, which has pressed Biden to appoint more Latinos to Cabinet positions. In a letter to Biden this month, the group said Cardona “fully grasps the challenges that English as Second Language (ESL) Learners, Latinos, and other minority students face in America’s classrooms.”
Jamilah Prince-Stewart, executive director of FaithActs for Education, said the organization “applauds” Biden’s selection and hopes Cardona is quickly confirmed by the Senate.
“Connecticut is a microcosm of the country when it comes to education. We have pockets of great affluence and pockets of great need, which are reflected in our schools,” said Prince-Stewart in a statement. “From his personal life and career, Dr. Cardona knows our struggle and cares deeply about ending inequity. He knows that Black, Brown and low-income families are ignored when it comes to getting schools their children need and deserve.”
In December, Connecticut became the first state requiring high schools to provide courses on Black and Latino studies. Cardona praised the measure, saying that “identities matter.”
”The fact is that more inclusive, culturally relevant content in classrooms leads to greater student engagement and better outcomes for all,” he said, in a statement.
Cardona, like Lamont, has been a strong proponent of in-person education throughout the pandemic — a stance Biden supports. Biden has pledged to have a majority of U.S. schools reopened by the end of his first 100 days in office. The president-elect is promising new federal guidelines on school opening decisions, and a “large-scale” U.S. Department of Education effort to identify and share the best ways to teach during a pandemic.
“Everyone wants schools to fully reopen for in-person instruction,” states Biden’s Roadmap to Reopening Schools Safely. “Creating the conditions to make it happen should be a top national priority.”
Similar to what Lamont and Cardona laid out in Connecticut, Biden’s roadmap also say decisions to reopen should be made at a local level, “based on science and in consultation with communities.”
Despite ongoing disagreements over whether schools should be shut down due to rising case numbers across the state, a coalition of unions representing Connecticut educators previously supported his candidacy as Biden’s education secretary. In a Dec. 18 statement, the coalition said Cardona has been tested by the pandemic and “would be a positive force for public education.”
“While this challenge has been a rocky road — and many issues remain unresolved — teachers and school support staff have appreciated his openness and collaboration,” they wrote.
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said Tuesday in a statement that Cardona, a former member of the union, “will transform the Education Department to help students thrive, a reversal of the [Betsy] DeVos disaster of the last four years.”
AFT Connecticut President Jan Hochadel said before COVID-19, Cardona “engaged educators on issues ranging from reducing standardized testing to ensuring equity for all students to closing the diversity gap in our schools.”
“The opportunity for a true educator with classroom experience and a leader who understands that challenge is exciting for anyone who cares about the future of America’s public schools,” she wrote.
Jeff Leake, president of the Connecticut Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, said Cardona “believes teachers need to have a seat at the table in order to develop well-informed education policy.”
“He has always sought out diverse educator voices as experts and welcomed their experience and knowledge on many issues that impact educators and their students,” Leake said, in a statement. “The year ahead offers both potential and challenges, and we wish Cardona much success as he begins this new journey to lead the U.S. Department of Education.”