Miguel Cardona Confirmed as Education Secretary
- Biden promised to form a diverse Cabinet and nominate an educator as secretary.
- Connecticut educator Miguel Cardona steered his state's schools through COVID-19.
- Now, the former teacher will head up U.S. education in a time of massive reform.
Vice President Kamala Harris swore in Miguel Cardona as secretary of education on Tuesday, following a bipartisan 66-33 Senate vote. The 2017 confirmation of Cardona's predecessor, Betsy DeVos, required a tie-breaking vote by former Vice President Mike Pence.
In nominating Cardona, President Joe Biden fulfilled a campaign pledge to pick a public school educator for the role. DeVos, by contrast, was frequently criticized for her lack of classroom experience.
As education commissioner of Connecticut — and a former teacher, principial, and superintendent — Cardona champions equity in education. Now, Biden will assign his education platform to Cardona, which aims to "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 3- and 4-year-old in the country."
“Miguel Cardona is not just a proud product of public schools — he’s made strengthening public education and fighting for equity his life’s work.”
Biden, a longtime teachers' union supporter who announced his campaign for presidency at a union function, is described as having "sidestepped any sibling rivalry between the NEA and AFT" by choosing a nominee outside union ranks.
Some called Cardona's nomination to the Cabinet a "meteoric rise," but it isn't the educator's first precipitous career move. In 2003, Cardona, who earned his bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees from Connecticut public colleges, became the youngest principal in the state of Connecticut at just 27 years old.
A novice to politics, Cardona maintains "no clear public stance" on hot-button issues like charter schools and free-college reform. For now, school reopenings take precedence. In an op-ed published in USA Today following his confirmation, Cardona outlines his plan to get students back in school, calling the COVID-19 pandemic "the biggest and most complex challenge our education system has experienced."
Issues Cardona Will Face as the New Education Secretary
The Biden administration is poised to make big changes in U.S. education, from how schools interpret Title IX to how students can afford college. Biden has already made rule changes that impact transgender students and says he will direct Cardona and the Department of Education to go to work on debt forgiveness.
So far, the president has kept his own comments on divisive education issues, including school reopenings, neutral.
Reopening Schools Safely
Both Biden and Cardona say it's time to get students back in the classroom. Biden promised to reopen most schools in his first 100 days. "In-person education is too important for our children to disrupt their education further," Cardona told school superintendents.
Despite growing scientific support of school reopenings, school districts and teachers' unions remain gridlocked. The reopening debate is often said to split Democrats, who prioritize safety, and Republicans, who prioritize returning to a sense of normalcy. Student attendance and achievement data complicate those priorities.
Disadvantaged students are more likely to still be learning online and falling behind. In a tweet, Cardona suggested that the remedy for decreased attendance among Black and brown students — and the unequal learning losses projected to result — is to return to in-person learning.
You can’t improve what you don’t monitor. Districts have been champions finding creative ways to improve attendance and engagement. 👇🏼 is real equity work. Safe in school options reduce gaps!! @EducateCT @attendanceworks @ajitgct https://t.co/YUgfe6xdUm— Dr. Miguel A. Cardona (@teachcardona) December 1, 2020
Cardona's five-point plan for school reopenings includes convening a national summit of educators, publishing school guidelines and handbooks, and collecting school reopening data.
According to the new secretary, "[Reopening schools] will require tremendous investment from the federal government to meet the academic, social, emotional, and mental health needs of students, during and after the pandemic."
Erasing Federal Student Loan Debt
As a former first-generation college student, Cardona says he understands the importance of making education accessible. That includes addressing the $1.7 trillion student debt crisis. Like Biden, Cardona has signaled support for student debt forgiveness — though, again like Biden, he has refrained from giving specifics.
Stopping short of the progressive call to wipe out all debt, or to cancel the first $50,000 of every federal borrower's debt, Biden has supported plans to forgive borrowers' first $10,000 in federal student loans as a pandemic relief measure. But nothing concrete has emerged yet.
For now, Biden has extended the moratorium on student debt collection through the end of September.
Repealing Trump and DeVos' Education Laws
Former Secretary of Education DeVos' most controversial moves were direct reversals of Obama-era education policy. The new administration now plans to repeal those reversals. Where executive action won't cut it, Cardona will have to take the longer legislative route.
Under President Barack Obama, transgender students had the right to use the bathroom of their choice, but Trump rescinded this ruling. In one of dozens of executive orders signed in his first week as president, Biden affirmed children's right "to learn without worrying about whether they will be denied access to the restroom, the locker room, or school sports."
Beyond the bathroom debate, Biden's order means that girls' sports teams must allow "biological boys who self-identify as girls" to join. Cardona agrees, saying in his confirmation hearing, "I believe schools should offer the opportunity for students to engage in extracurricular activities, even if they're transgender."
“Investing in public education changes lives and saves lives. I’ve seen it. I’ve lived it. And I know that our challenges ahead are problems we can overcome together.”
Biden also walked back the ban on government contractors, like public schools and colleges, requiring diversity, equity, and inclusion training. Additionally, he will reinstate oversight of for-profit colleges, requiring these schools to once again demonstrate that their graduates are able to obtain gainful employment if they wish to remain eligible for federal funding.
One DeVos reversal, however, will take more time to flip. DeVos' Department of Education rewrote Title IX to include stricter rules for how schools handle sexual assault allegations. The rules mandated that sexual assault investigations on college campuses adhere to criminal case standards, including live cross-examinations of the accuser and the accused.
The Obama administration had previously encouraged schools to believe victims, leading to an upswell in reporting and activism. While this guidance aligned more closely with victims' rights activists, the allegations and punishment disproportionately impacted male students of color.
Feature Image: Joshua Roberts / Stringer / Getty Images