Biden picks education secretary with passion for making schools more equitable

President-Elect Joe Biden has nominated Miguel Cardona, the head of Connecticut’s public schools, to lead the Department of Education. If confirmed as the next education secretary, Cardona will have his work cut out for him—setting the department on a new course, laying out his policy goals for higher education, and navigating his new role amid a pandemic. 

Unlike President Trump’s Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Cardona is no stranger to public education. He attended public school as a child, earned his undergraduate and graduate degrees at state institutions, began his career as an elementary school teacher in a Connecticut public school district, and was a principal for a decade afterward. He also served as an assistant superintendent before becoming Connecticut’s Commissioner of Education in 2019. 

“In Miguel Cardona, America will have an experienced and dedicated public school teacher leading the way at the Department of Education—ensuring that every student is equipped to thrive in the economy of the future, that every educator has the resources they need to do their jobs with dignity and success, and that every school is on track to reopen safely,” Biden said in a statement.

A first-gen perspective, record of foregrounding equity

While most of Cardona’s professional experience has been in K-12, higher education observers say his personal biography and demonstrated focus on making schools more equitable will clearly inform his approach. “Cardona’s pedigree—like that of Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris, a graduate of Howard University, and the next first lady, Jill Biden, a community-college educator—may signal a focus on the types of institutions that often get lost in public discussion of colleges and universities,” The Chronicle of Higher Education writes.

In addition, Cardona, whose parents are from Puerto Rico and who did not speak English before attending school, would be the first Latinx secretary of education during a period when Latinx student representation on U.S. college campuses is expected to increase substantially.  

He was the first in his family to attend college and speaks of the challenges he overcame as a college freshman; he later participated in a program to help other first-generation students make the transition from high school to higher education. 

“The fact that Miguel represents the changing demographic in higher education, that sends an outstanding message to students that it can be done,” said Zulma R. Toro, president of Central Connecticut State, where Cardona earned his undergraduate degree. 

His personal experiences also fueled a lasting focus on students’ well-being and achievement. Thomas Katsouleas, president of the University of Connecticut, where Cardona earned his doctorate and serves on the board of trustees, says Cardona will work “to ensure we create opportunity for a diverse population to succeed in college.”

“His chief passion is access and achievement for low-income, first-generation students of color—and he’s been very clear that that includes higher education,” Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education, told NPR.  

Debt forgiveness an open question

Meanwhile, higher education advocates remain curious about Cardona’s other policy goals for postsecondary education—especially when it comes to forgiving student loan debt, extending the current moratorium on loan repayment, and addressing predatory for-profit schools. 
“The next secretary must have a strong team to help address those challenges,” Robert Shireman, director of higher education excellence at the Century Foundation, told Inside Higher Ed.

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