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Miguel Cardona

Connecticut Department of Education

President-elect Joe Biden selected Connecticut education commissioner Miguel Cardona as his education secretary on Tuesday.

"Dr. Cardona has a proven track record as an innovative leader who will fight for all students, and for a better, fairer, more successful education system," Biden said. "He will also strive to eliminate long-standing inequities and close racial and socioeconomic opportunity gaps -- and expand access to community colleges, training, and public four-year colleges and universities to improve student success and grow a stronger, more prosperous, and more inclusive middle class."

The presidents of the nation's largest teachers' unions, Randi Weingarten, of the American Federation of Teachers, and Becky Pringle, of the National Education Association, congratulated Cardona in statements Tuesday afternoon. The choice was seen as a safer pick than Weingarten or former NEA president Lily Eskelsen García. Both union leaders had been mentioned as potential candidates but would have likely faced a tough confirmation fight in a Senate that could be controlled by Republicans, depending on two runoff elections in Georgia next month.

Cardona's background is primarily in elementary and secondary education. In 2003, Cardona, then 28, was the youngest principal in the state when he became head of Hanover Elementary School in Meriden, Conn., according to The Hartford Courant. After becoming an assistant superintendent for teaching and learning at Meriden Public Schools in 2013, he rose quickly in the state system, becoming head of the state’s K-12 schools just last summer.

As a student, he attended Meriden Public Schools and graduated from Wilcox Technical High School. Cardenas attended Central Connecticut State University for his bachelor’s degree and the University of Connecticut, where he completed his master’s degree in bilingual/bicultural education and his doctorate in education.

Washington higher education advocates say they know little about Cardona’s higher education stances. Robert Shireman, deputy under secretary of education during the Obama administration, said Cardona will need strong advisers on higher education issues.

“If Cardona is the pick, it underscores the need for a deputy role that will focus on higher education and especially financial aid and student loans,” said Shireman, director of higher education excellence at the Century Foundation.

“Every year nearly 20 million Americans complete the [Free Application for Federal Student Aid], and one in six Americans have student loans. Further, with state budget cuts looming, access to affordable college options will be threatened, leading to a likely surge in [for-profit] predatory schools,” he said. “The next secretary must have a strong team to help address those challenges.”

Cardona is best known for pressing Connecticut schools to reopen, fearing low-income students would fall behind because of disparities in online learning.

That impressed Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education. Mitchell said in an interview he does not know Cardona. “But I’m a big fan of how he managed the coronavirus, and he did it with students’ welfare in mind.”

Mitchell said that augers well for how he’d handle higher education issues. “He has his eyes focused on lower-income students of color.”

However, state education officials in Connecticut said that although Cardona's focus has been on K-12, he has worked closely with higher education leaders, attending meetings and participating in discussions of the Connecticut State Colleges & Universities Board of Regents as an ex officio member, and he speaks frequently about the importance of lifelong learning.

"He is a strong advocate for public higher education. I think he understands the value of higher education and what needs to happen for make higher education more accessible," Mark E. Ojakian, president of the Connecticut system, said in an interview.

Much of that, he said, stems from Cardona’s history. During his confirmation hearing in the Connecticut Senate, Cardona described himself as a “goofy little Puerto Rican kid” born in a public housing complex in Meriden.

“He understands what it’s like to struggle. He wasn’t born with a silver spoon in life. He’s had to work for everything he’s achieved,” Ojakian said. “He hasn’t forgotten where he’s come from. He’s a really smart, dedicated person who is also just a down-to-earth, nice guy.”

Testifying at his confirmation hearing, Cardona said, “The passion I have for public education stems from my belief that it is the best lever for economic success and prosperity in Connecticut and the belief that public education is still the great equalizer. It was for me,” he told lawmakers.

That understanding of the importance of education, Ojakian said, has led Cardona to speak about the importance of the state’s free college program at its 12 public community colleges. Biden has pledged to make attendance free at community colleges, as well as at public four-year colleges for families with incomes less than $125,000.

Ojakian said Cardona will bring an understanding of the importance of wraparound services. “In K-12 students have transportation issues. They come to school hungry. The same issues exist in higher education,” he said.

Cardona has also worked to create connections between high schools and colleges, creating programs to allow Meriden high school students to take community college courses at their schools, and having college counselors go to high schools to help students fill out financial aid forms, Ojakian said.

That helps public colleges hang on to students who might otherwise go to for-profit colleges, said Ojakian, though he did not know Cardona’s feelings about for-profit institutions, which are expected to come under greater scrutiny in the Biden administration.

If selected, Cardona will also face a push by advocacy groups to forgive student debt. Neither Ojakian nor Timothy Larson, executive director of the Connecticut Office of Higher Education, knew where Cardona stands in the debt cancellation debate.

“I think he would be very mindful that student debt is a significant burden,” said Larson.

Larson said Cardona has also been an advocate for advancing all types of education after high school. "He's talked to me a lot about how education sets you up for the next journey and how the next journey never ends with college, or trade school or a certificate, but is over a lifetime," Larson said. "This is a tremendous individual who has a presence when he walks into a room."

In selecting Cardona, Biden fulfilled some of his promises to supporters, including unions. He had promised during the campaign to name someone who had taught in a classroom, in contrast to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

In a statement, Pringle praised Cardona’s teaching background. “As a former public-school teacher, he understands what’s at stake for students and promises to respect the voice of educators as we work to safely reopen school buildings, colleges, and university campuses, while also forging a path to transform public education into a racially and socially just and equitable system that is designed to prepare every student to succeed in a diverse and interdependent world,” she said.

“Dr. Cardona will help fulfill President-elect Biden’s promises to make community college free, tackle the student debt crisis, and enable college graduates to pursue careers in education and public service by expanding and simplifying the Public Service Loan Forgiveness and Teacher Loan Forgiveness programs,” she said.

Weingarten said Cardona “is not just a proud product of public schools -- he’s made strengthening public education and fighting for equity his life’s work. With his experience as a student, fourth-grade teacher, principal, assistant superintendent and commissioner in Connecticut, Dr. Cardona -- a former AFT member -- will transform the Education Department to help students thrive, a reversal of the DeVos disaster of the last four years.”

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