Biden picks equity-focused Latino as US education secretary

Former schoolteacher Miguel Cardona brings record of fighting achievement gaps

December 23, 2020
US education secretary Miguel Cardona
US education secretary Miguel Cardona

Joe Biden’s choice of a former schoolteacher with low-income Puerto Rican family roots as US education secretary has been seen as pointing towards a renewed focus on equality in universities.

If confirmed by the US Senate, Miguel Cardona would become the third Latino to serve in the nation’s top education post, after spending barely more than a year as the state education commissioner in Connecticut.

In a statement, Mr Biden emphasised Dr Cardona’s two-decade record of pursuing diversity and equal opportunity in school education, and suggested that he would apply that same commitment at the post-secondary level.

The selection fulfils Mr Biden’s promise to choose someone with classroom teaching experience, as Dr Cardona has been a teacher, school principal and assistant superintendent in his hometown of Meriden. The 45-year-old became Connecticut’s youngest principal in 2003 and the state’s principal of the year in 2012.

Former colleagues anticipated a deeply personal emphasis on equal treatment of students and greater attention to quality and diversity in teacher training.

“Much more needs to change in the professional education of educators to eliminate the achievement gap,” said Toni Harp, a former state senator who served alongside Dr Cardona in 2010 as co-chairs of a statewide task force studying inequalities in student performance. “Dr Cardona was very interested in solving this problem during our task force days,” said Ms Harp, recently mayor of New Haven.

Richard Lemons, a former assistant professor of educational leadership at the University of Connecticut who taught Dr Cardona in graduate school, said the nominee well understood the direct link between education and economic security and social mobility.

“He is a living example of it,” said Dr Lemons, now a lecturer in education studies at Yale University who also serves as executive director of the Connecticut Center for School Change.

Dr Cardona also taught for four years at the University of Connecticut as an adjunct professor of educational leadership, and holds five degrees or certificates from Connecticut’s state universities.

While assistant superintendent, Dr Cardona became known for leading teachers on tours of Meriden – a half-hour north of Yale – to help them see the diversity of their students. Some live in the city’s subsidised housing projects where Dr Cardona was raised.

In interviews, he has described the outings as part of his battle against the low expectations he recalled facing as a Spanish-speaking Latino from low-income surroundings. As a teacher, he said, he avoided bilingual classes to show students that his ethnicity imposed no such limits.

He was appointed state superintendent in August 2019 and used his position as Connecticut’s top education official to push communities to resume in-person teaching during the pandemic – much as the outgoing US education secretary, Betsy DeVos, tried to do on the national level.

The heads of the nation’s two largest teacher unions also were repeatedly described in recent weeks as under consideration by Mr Biden, before concerns over the political nature of their jobs made their selections seem less likely.

Partisan control of the US Senate awaits the outcome of two final races in Georgia in January. Patty Murray, the Democrat likely to head the Senate’s education committee if her party wins those two races, and thus to chair Dr Cardona’s confirmation hearing, called him “an excellent choice” that follows “four years of a secretary of education who had absolutely no experience in public education”.

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