Miguel Cardona: What to know about Biden's education secretary pick

In tapping Cardona, Biden passed over high-profile teachers union representatives

President Biden has tapped Miguel Cardona to lead the Education Department, and he'll soon have the chance to make his case for the job before the Senate during a confirmation hearing. 

If confirmed, Cardona will step into the hot seat after Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who was the bitter target of Democratic scorn for her changes to Title IX, her support of school choice and charter programs, and for changes to Obama-era student loan borrowing policies.

Here's everything to know about Cardona, 45, Connecticut's education commissioner:

He was an ESL learner in Connecticut public schools 

Cardona grew up in Meridien, Connecticut, speaking Spanish from birth with his Puerto Rican parents. He struggled to learn English in kindergarten. Supporters have said he "understands the challenges" of English second language learners in schools. He was raised in a housing project in Meridien and graduated from a technical high school as part of the automotive studies program, before earning an undergraduate, master's and Ph.D. in education. 

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He's dedicated much of his career to closing the achievement gap between English language learners and native speakers in U.S. schools. 

He’s a lifelong educator

Cardona currently serves as Connecticut’s education commissioner. He began his career as a fourth-grade teacher and, at 27, became the youngest principal in Connecticut at Hanover High School. From 2015 to 2019, Cardona served as the assistant superintendent in his hometown’s 8,000-student district. 

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In tapping the Connecticut commissioner, Biden passed over two high-profile teachers union representatives -- Lily Eskelsen Garcia, former president of the National Education Association, and Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. The president was also reportedly considering Leslie Fenwick, dean emeritus at Howard University. 

He spearheaded efforts to reopen Connecticut schools

As education commissioner, Cardona has been a vociferous advocate of sending children back to school for in-person learning amid the coronavirus pandemic, noting the low transmission rate among children and the devastating setbacks of remote learning. 

Biden himself has advocated for most public schools to reopen within his first 100 days in office, and if confirmed, Cardona will be tasked with leading the effort. 

Under the leadership of Cardona and Gov. Ned Lamont, Connecticut was a rare blue state to express a strict preference for in-person learning amid the rise and fall of coronavirus cases in the state. 

Ultimately, the decision was left to school districts to decide how to handle closings. In November, Cardona and acting Department of Health Commissioner Deidre Gifford sent a letter to local superintendents saying they do not think "arbitrary, date-based closures of school are warranted at this time."

"We are not seeing sustained person-to-person transmission of COVID-19 in schools or outbreaks of COVID-19 in schools, despite increasing levels of COVID-19 in the community," they wrote.

He recently drew attention to new state data showing that students who are learning online have missed twice as many days of class as those attending school in-person. The data also showed that students with high needs, including those learning English, are far more likely to be considered chronically absent this school year.

He’s expressed some support for charter schools 

"As a parent myself I want to make sure I have options for my children," Cardona told the Connecticut Post last year.

Cardona said he wants public, charter, and magnet schools to all abide by the same accountability measures. Still, during his hearing for education commissioner, Cardona said his work would center on public schools. 

"Charter schools provide choice for parents that are seeking choice, so I think it’s a viable option, but [neighborhood schools], that’s going to be the core work that not only myself but the people behind me in the agency that I represent will have while I’m commissioner."

Jeanne Allen, CEO of the Center for Education Reform, praised the choice of Cardona. 

"President-Elect Joe Biden’s choice of Connecticut Commissioner of Education, Miguel Cardona, is good news for the millions of parents and students ... Had Biden picked a union leader or equivalent, it would have been akin to an act of war on the progress of the last three decades of pushing power to parents," she said in a statement. 

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Biden, a self-described "union guy," has called for eliminating federal funding of for-profit charter schools. Federal funding only accounts for about 10 percent of school funding.