The Senate voted on Monday to confirm Miguel Cardona as education secretary, paving the way for President Joe Biden’s efforts to reopen schools across the country amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Cardona, 45, a former public school teacher who became Connecticut’s education chief, was approved by a 64-33 vote.
He supports the education department amid growing tension between Americans who think students can now return to class safely and others who say the risks are still too great.
Although his post has limited authority to force schools to reopen, Cardona will be asked to play a pivotal role in achieving Biden’s goal of having a majority of elementary schools open five days a week during his First 100 days. He will be responsible for guiding schools through the reopening process and sharing best practices on how to teach during a pandemic.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last month published a roadmap to get students back to class safely. The agency said masks, social distancing and other strategies should be used, but vaccinating teachers was not a prerequisite for reopening.
Cardona, who has drawn attention for his efforts to reopen schools in Connecticut, has pledged to make reopening schools a top priority. During his Senate confirmation hearing last month, he said there were “excellent examples across our country of schools that have been able to safely reopen.”
The debate has turned into a political storm for Biden, who is caught between competing interests as he aims to get students into the classroom without provoking the powerful teacher unions that helped place him in the White House . He says his goal of getting students back to class is possible if Congress approves his relief plan, which includes $ 130 billion for schools nationwide.
Republicans berated Biden for not reopening schools faster, while teachers’ unions opposed the administration’s decision to continue with the standardized tests required by the federal government during the pandemic.
The difficult terrain is nothing new for Cardona, however, who has had to deal with similar tension while navigating the Connecticut pandemic, and who has quickly won praise even from critics of Biden.
Congressional Republicans have applauded Cardona’s efforts to reopen schools in Connecticut, and some see him as a potential ally in their support for charter schools. Teachers, on the other hand, see him as a partner who brings years of experience in education and knows the demands of teaching.
The appointment continues a meteoric rise for Cardona, who was appointed head of the Connecticut Education Department in 2019 after spending 20 years working in Meriden, Connecticut, in public schools – the same district as he frequented as a child.
He started his career as a fourth-grade teacher before becoming the state’s youngest director at 28. In 2012 he was named Connecticut Director of the Year and in 2015 he became an Assistant District Superintendent. When he was appointed state education commissioner, he became the first Latino to hold that post.
Cardona grew up in a public housing project in Meriden, raised by parents who came to Connecticut from Puerto Rico as children. Throughout his career, he has focused on bridging education gaps and supporting bilingual education. It’s a personal issue for Cardona, who says he only spoke Spanish when he entered kindergarten and struggled to learn English.
Cardona was the first in her family to graduate from college, and her three degrees include a Doctor of Education degree from the University of Connecticut. He and his wife, Marissa, have two children in high school.
His deep roots in public education matched the criteria Biden sought in an education secretary. During his campaign, Biden promised to choose a secretary with experience in public education. He was supposed to create a contrast with then secretary Betsy DeVos, a billionaire from Michigan who has spent decades advocating for school choice policies.
In an increasingly fragmented world of education, Cardona has vowed to be a unifier. At his confirmation hearing, he promised to engage with “the large and diverse community of people who have an interest in education.” He added that “we gain strength by uniting.
As he works to help schools reopen, he will also be tasked with helping them deal with the damage the pandemic has caused to student learning. He echoed Biden’s call for additional education funding, saying schools will need to expand summer college programs and hire more counselors to help students with mental health issues.
It is also likely to face early testing as it assesses the flexibility to be given to states when administering standardized tests. The Education Department last week ordered states to continue annual testing, but said assessments could be offered online or delayed until fall. The agency also raised the possibility that states may be granted “additional assessment flexibility” in certain cases.
Some states are already pushing for this additional flexibility, including Michigan, which is calling for state tests to be replaced with local “benchmark” assessments that were administered this year. It will be up to Cardona to decide on the degree of leniency to be granted.
Republicans have also set the stage for a fight against transgender athletes. At last month’s hearing, Senator Rand Paul, R-Ky., Raised objections to policies allowing transgender girls to participate in girls’ athletics. It’s the subject of a legal battle in Connecticut, where some cisgender athletes are challenging a state policy that allows trans students to participate as an identified gender.
Pressed by Paul to take a stand on the issue, Cardona said he would support the right of “all students, including transgender students.”