Updated: Oct 15, 2021
On Dec. 22, 2020, Democrat Miguel Cardona was selected by then-President-elect Joe Biden to join his Presidential Cabinet as the United States Secretary of Education. The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions held Cardona’s nomination hearing on Feb. 3 this year and voted 17-5 on Feb. 11 to advance his nomination. On March 1, Cardona was confirmed by the Senate with a 64-33 vote.
As the U.S. Secretary of Education, Cardona will head the U.S. Department of Education (ED), which strives to “promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access.”
Under the offices of the Secretary and the Deputy Secretary, the ED has several other departments, such as the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education (OESE), the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services (OSERS), and the Office of Postsecondary Education (OPE). In this role, Cardona will have an annual budget of $68 million and a staff of 4,400 at his disposal.
Just one day after being sworn in, Cardona traveled to his hometown of Meriden, Connecticut, with first lady Jill Biden. The two went on a tour of schools, pressing the return of in-person learning. Since his confirmation, Cardona has been the face of President Biden’s school reopening push, promising to hold a national school reopening summit later this month.
Cardona was born in Meriden, Connecticut, on July 11, 1975. He grew up in a public housing project in Meriden, raised by parents who came to Connecticut from Puerto Rico as children. Cardona grew up speaking Spanish and later struggled to learn English beginning kindergarten.
Cardona graduated from H.C. Wilcox Technical High School and earned a Bachelor of Science degree in education from Central Connecticut State University in 1997. In 2001, he earned a master’s degree in bilingual and bicultural education from the University of Connecticut (UConn). He completed the administrator preparation program and earned his Ed.D. and superintendent certificate from UConn as well.
After completing his bachelor’s degree, Cardona took a job teaching fourth grade in Meriden. After just five years in the classroom, he became Connecticut’s youngest principal, leading Hanover Elementary School at 28.
Cardona married Marissa Perez on July 6, 2002; they have two children who attend a Meriden public school. Marissa, a former Miss Connecticut, and singer, works in the district as a family-school liaison.
Cardona served as Hanover Elementary School’s principal for 10 years. In 2012, he was named as Connecticut’s principal of the year. From 2015 to 2019, he was the Assistant Superintendent for Teaching and Learning in Meriden. During this time, he was also a professor of education at the University of Connecticut’s Department of Educational Leadership. He was also a co-chair of the Connecticut Legislative Achievement Gap Task Force.
Time as Education Commissioner
In August 2019, Cardona was the first Latino to be appointed Commissioner of Education in Connecticut by Governor Ned Lamont. The state has one of the most significant achievement gaps in the U.S. between Latino and non-Hispanic white students.
As Commissioner of Education, Cardona worked to combat problems such as holding standardized testing, ensuring all students had access to virtual learning and fulfilling the demand for teachers in the state.
Regarding internet connection and access to online learning devices, Connecticut had the same problems as multiple states: not all students have adequate internet to learn from home effectively. However, last spring, Connecticut spent millions on laptops and internet connections, in part using federal aid. In December 2020, Connecticut declared that it was the first to address the issues regarding access to online classes. To fill a demand for teachers in a teacher shortage made worse by the pandemic and improve the teaching workforce’s diversity, Cardona recruited college students to work in public schools.
In his time in the position, Cardona worked to reopen Connecticut schools amid the pandemic, which put Cardona at odds with the state teachers’ union. Still, the teachers union and other education unions in Connecticut endorsed Cardona’s selection as head of the ED.
“We don’t always agree,” President of the American Federation of Teachers Connecticut Jan Hochadel said. “But when we don’t, we still keep communicating, very respectfully. And it’s not just teacher unions; it’s the superintendent unions; it’s everyone until we can come to some middle ground. That’s why we endorsed him. I mean, that’s the way he’s been as commissioner, and I think that’s key for the role he’s about to take.”
In a speech praising educators on Dec. 23, 2020, Biden announced Miguel Cardona was a “real easy” choice to be the next Secretary of Education. Biden exalted Cardona’s experience in balancing online and in-person learning in Connecticut and getting students connected with adequate tools for distance learning. “That’s the vision, resolve, and initiative; that’s all gonna help us contain this pandemic and reopen our schools safely,”
Biden said. Biden has long maintained that his education secretary nominee would be a teacher or educator. Cardona fits this criteria perfectly, as he is a product of public schools and state universities and taught at a public school.
Dr. Miguel Cardona’s primary goal as the U.S. Secretary of Education is the safe reopening of schools across the nation, which he plans to do using a five-point plan based on techniques that worked for Connecticut schools. Cardona aims to carry out this plan as safely as possible. “We never want to compromise safety. We want to make sure that we can do it safely to get students in as quickly as possible, but also as safely as possible,” he said when speaking with NBC Connecticut.
At his Senate confirmation hearing last month, Cardona said that there are “great examples throughout our country of schools that have been able to reopen safely.” He hopes to use his experience as Commissioner of Education as the groundwork for this plan, applying strategies that worked for Connecticut schools to the entire U.S.
On March 11, President Biden signed the new $1.9 trillion COVID-19 Relief Bill into action. This legislation will provide over $120 billion to K-12 schools. This new funding will help put the ED’s school reopening plan into action.
As Secretary of Education, Cardona will ensure that the federal government’s role in education is to improve student opportunity, defend students’ civil rights, and focus on student success.
Shortly after being appointed Connecticut Commissioner of Education, Cardona said closing the achievement gap was “top of the list” for him. He promised to look at improvements that could be made “inside the schoolhouse” and “outside the schoolhouse,” such as “housing insecurity, hunger… economic instability.” He hopes to carry this task over to his role as Secretary of Education and make changes on a larger scale.
Cardona will most likely face an early test as he weighs how much flexibility to grant states regarding administering standardized tests. The Education Department has ordered states to continue with annual testing but said assessments could be offered online or delayed until fall. The agency also held out the possibility that states could be granted “additional assessment flexibility.” It will be up to Cardona to decide how much leniency to provide.
Republicans have also set the stage for a fight over transgender athletes. At last month’s hearing, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., brought up objections with policies that allowed transgender girls to participate in girls’ athletics. This is an ongoing legal battle in Connecticut, where some cisgender athletes are challenging the state policy that allows transgender students to participate as their identified gender. Pressed by Paul to take a stance on the issue, Cardona said he would support the right of “all students, including students who are transgender.”
At his confirmation hearing, he vowed to be a unifier and engage with “the vast, diverse community of people who have a stake in education.” He added that “we gain strength from joining together.”