//Biden’s Education Secretary Confirmed, Asks America To ‘Reimagine Education’

Biden’s Education Secretary Confirmed, Asks America To ‘Reimagine Education’

The Senate confirmed Dr. Miguel A. Cardona to lead the Education Department on Monday. The final vote was 64 to 33.

“There are no shortages of challenges ahead, no shortage of problems for us to solve. But by the same token, there are countless opportunities for us to seize,”  said Cordona after accepting the nomination in December. “We must embrace the opportunity to reimagine education – and build it back better. We must evolve it to meet the needs of our students.”

Past Education Secretary Senate confirmations:Miguel Cardona (2021) 64-33Betsy DeVos (2017) 51-50John King (2016) 49-40Arne Duncan (2009), Margaret Spellings (2005), Rod Paige (2001), Richard Riley (1993) and Lamar Alexander (1991), all by voice vote

— Craig Caplan (@CraigCaplan) March 1, 2021

Cardona, 45, is new to the national stage, spending most of his professional career working in the public education system in his hometown of Meriden, Connecticut. He started out as a fourth-grade elementary school teacher, became the youngest principal in the state in 2013, then assumed the role of assistant superintendent at the district’s central office ten years later.

“Dr. Cardona has a background, qualifications, temperament to serve as Secretary of Education,” U.S. Senator Richard Burr (R-NC) said last week. “He stressed the need for students to get back in school and that’s now finally a bipartisan mission.”

Democratic Governor Ned Lamont appointed Cardona as Connecticut’s education commissioner in August 2019. He was the first Latino to hold that office.

Dr. Cardona reportedly has a master’s degree in bilingual education.

Let's Heal, Learn, and Grow Together! https://t.co/5JtBYhs0TX

— Dr. Miguel A. Cardona (@teachcardona) December 31, 2020

“The American public school system has been phenomenal,” Cardona said in a video promoting his confirmation. “However, it also has its flaws. Zip code, skin color in many cases, are still determinants of success.”

According to the Harford Courant, Cardona “is known for his focus on addressing racial and economic achievement gaps in Connecticut, as well as for being a strong proponent of keeping schools open during the pandemic.”

However, Sen. Tim Scott, a Republican from South Carolina, voted against Cardona’s confirmation, saying Cardona would take orders from President Biden rather than setting the education agenda.

“Unfortunately, it is not his Connecticut policies that he will be championing as Biden’s education chief, it is the president’s union-focused progressive policies,” Sen. Scott said. “If Cardona follows the Biden plan to pit teacher unions against parents and students, our kids will never get the education they truly deserve.”

The son of Puerto Rican parents, Cardona has called public education “the great equalizer” for “economic success and prosperity,” citing his own life experience as an example.

“Our success as a state will be dependent upon how we support students who are learning English as a second language,” he told Connecticut lawmakers in 2019.

The Courant reported, “The Meriden native grew up in a public housing complex and is the son of a police officer,” adding, “Cardona has shared that he entered kindergarten only speaking Spanish and struggled to learn English.”

“I, being bilingual and bicultural, am as American as apple pie and rice and beans,” Cardona has said.

He is married to Marissa Pérez Cardona, and they have two school-aged children.

An extensive profile by National Public Radio featured excerpts from Cardona’s doctoral capsule.

“Being of Puerto Rican descent, but born in Connecticut, I have always had an awareness of my Hispanic heritage, and like many students, struggled with my identity growing up,” he wrote. “During my later school years and into adulthood, I embraced my Hispanic-American identity and now encourage my two young children to do the same.”

NPR interviewed “more than a dozen former students, district parents and Meriden coworkers” for its report, which found “there’s one concern featured prominently: Cardona is so diplomatic, such a consensus-builder, that it’s not always clear where he stands on certain issues.”

Cardona takes over an Education Department tasked with guiding and supporting states and local school districts to reopen K-12 classrooms that moved online when the pandemic began. Biden pledged during the campaign to ensure most schools would reopen by May, within his first 100 days in office.

At Cardona’s confirmation hearing on February 3, he vowed to do “everything in our power to safely reopen schools.” He said teachers should be prioritized to get the vaccine but suggested in-person learning could safely resume even if most have not received the shot(s).

“We have examples throughout our country of schools that are able to reopen safely and do so while following mitigation strategies,” he said.

As Connecticut’s top education official, Cardona acknowledged the pitfalls of remote instruction, like socialization issues. He expressed concern for students whose first language is not English, pointing out that many lack sufficient resources to participate in online learning in what he has described as “the digital divide.” The Connecticut Mirror reported one in 12 students attending public schools in Connecticut are classified as English learners.

Reimagine Education! @EducateCT https://t.co/Xm3lky3mZo

— Dr. Miguel A. Cardona (@teachcardona) July 1, 2020

“The inequities have really come to the surface,” Cardona told the outlet last year. “The impact that that’s going to have – it will last generations.”

Cardona said nearly 140,000 public school students in Connecticut “never or just minimally log on for any digital instruction,” a figure he said, “represents one quarter of all students” in the state.

During his confirmation hearing, Cardona was questioned by Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky over transgender student-athletes.

After taking office, President Biden issued an executive order which, in part, mandates that transgender girls should compete on female athletic teams.

Paul repeatedly pressed Cardona on whether transgender girls should be allowed to compete with biological girls in sports.

.@RandPaul: "Do you think it's fair to have boys running in the girls track meet?"

Sec. @usedgov Nominee Cardona: "I think it's the legal responsibility of schools to provide opportunities for students to participate in activities and this includes students who are transgender." pic.twitter.com/XxHqPYyB2E

— CSPAN (@cspan) February 3, 2021

“Do you think it’s fair to have boys running in the girls’ track meet?” Sen. Paul asked.

“I think it’s appropriate – I think it’s the legal responsibility for schools to provide opportunities for students to participate in activities and this includes students who are transgender,” Dr. Cardona answered.

As the exchange continued, Paul told Cardona he seemed “to be afraid to answer the question.”

Cardona also failed to clearly express his stance on whether the Education Department should waive federal academic testing requirements for all states again this year. According to The Washington Post, former Secretary Betsy DeVos “told all states they did not have to administer the tests after schools were abruptly closed when the pandemic hit.” Still, she said she would not grant waivers again in 2021 if she remained in that role. Some lawmakers argue it is necessary to resume standardized tests to determine how far behind students have fallen without in-person instruction.

As Politico reported, “Cardona offered mixed signals on how he would approach the issue as secretary,” and:

Cardona said he opposed a “one size fits all” approach to testing if students are out of the physical classroom because of Covid. But he did not say whether, as secretary of Education, he would grant waivers to relieve states of federal testing requirements in existing law.

He said only that states should be able to “weigh in on” how they implement testing this year as well as whether the results of those tests are used to hold schools accountable for their performance.

“I don’t think we need to be bringing students in just to test them on a standardized test. I don’t think that makes any sense,” Cardona said, while also raising the opposing argument. “If we don’t assess where our students are — and their level of performance — it’s going to be difficult for us to provide some targeted support and a resource allocation in a manner that can best support the closing of the gaps that have been exacerbated due to the pandemic.”

Dr. Cardona has also pledged to focus on student loan debt, which reached an all-time high by the end of last year, as more than 43 million Americans owed the federal government a collective $1.6 trillion.

President Biden extended a freeze of federal student loan payments through September, but some education reform advocates have called for loan forgiveness.

In an interview with Connecticut Public Radio on WNPR in January, Cardona said he was “totally in support” of President Biden’s plan to call on Congress to cancel $10,000 of student debt for all borrowers, of which 1 in every five are in default. Taxpayers would cover student loans that are forgiven.

Cardona discussed analyzing data to assess the damage student debt has caused “and make sure we’re targeting the support for students who need it most,” such as those who lost opportunities over the past year as COVID-19 spread across the globe.

“Part of this is recovering from the pandemic, part of this is really reimagining higher education as well,” Cardona said.

He is expected to be sworn in on Tuesday.

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