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Shiny Normal Thing! Joe Biden Picks A Teacher For Education Secretary
Not a billionaire Amway heiress in sight.
Joe Biden made good on his campaign promise to name an actual teacher to lead the Department of Education. On Tuesday, Biden announced he'd picked Connecticut's education commissioner, Miguel Cardona, for the job, saying Cardona "understands that the deep roots of inequity that exist as a source of our persistent opportunities gaps. He understands the transformative power that comes from investing in education."
We'd just like to thank Biden for making it once more possible for us to type the phrase "Secretary of Education" without violently retching. Cardona seems like a hell of a good guy to clean away the mess created by Donald Trump's Ed secretary, Betsy DeVos, who seemed to consider public schools mostly a source of funding for her mission of privatizing education wherever possible.
At the presser announcing his nomination, Cardona said that, as an educator and as a parent, he' recognizes how awful the last year has been for kids, parents, and schools:
"It's taken some of our most painful, longstanding disparities and wrenched them open even wider," Cardona said. [...] He said that "for too many students, your zip code and your skin color remain the best predictor of the opportunities you'll have in your lifetime.
He added, "Though we are beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel, we also know that this crisis is ongoing, that we will carry its impacts for years to come and that the problems and inequities that have plagued our educational system since long before Covid will still be with us even after the virus is gone."
It's really going to be good to have someone at the Education Department who understands that the problems of public schools won't be fixed by giving up on public education and shifting resources to private outfits that serve only a fraction of kids.
Cardona's own story is about as inspiring as you could want: As a child — he described himself as a "goofy little Puerto Rican kid" at his state confirmation hearing — he lived in public housing in Meriden, Connecticut, where he started school having spoken only Spanish at home.
"The passion I have for public education stems from my belief that it is the best lever for economic success and prosperity in Connecticut," he told lawmakers. "And the belief that public education is still the great equalizer. It was for me."
In a Connecticut Mirror profile published when he took the schools commissioner job in 2019, he recalled that he'd faced stereotyping because of his background:
"For Latino children from communities that are below the threshold of poverty, you know you're not typically thinking, the data doesn't suggest that they're going to be the next principal of the school … or state education commissioner," Cardona said. "There were times throughout my youth that I think people had lower expectations than they should have. It just made me hungrier."
"It's not lost on me, the significance of being the grandson of a tobacco farmer who came here for a better life, who despite having a second grade education was able to raise his family and create that upward mobility cycle," he added.
Unlike certain yacht-owning Ed secretaries we could name, all of Cardona's education, from elementary school through his doctorate at the University of Connecticut, has been at public institutions. At his confirmation hearing for the commissioner position, he told lawmakers, ""I hold five degrees or certificates from Connecticut universities and I'm a true product of the system I hope to lead."
And wow what a career. He taught fourth grade in Meriden schools, and said he might have been happy to stay in the classroom as a career, but he was encouraged by the system's superintendent to get the training to be a principal, so he did, and at 28 became the state's youngest school principal. Eventually, he moved on to the district offices, and in 2013 became an assistant superintendent, and on and on.
Here's the part where I get some happy tears: His two kids are now going to school in the same public school system that gave him an education and a career.
Just listen to him talk about kids and education, explaining why he decided as an undergrad to teach in elementary ed:
There's so much promise in young children. There's so much opportunity to help them shape what they want to be or what they want to do. You're able to positively impact children, not only academically but also hopefully leave a little bit of an imprint on how they develop as people.
For me, the best part of my job in every position I've had has been visiting the classroom, especially the little kindergarten ones or the 4-year-old kids. Being around kids — it really serves almost like fuel for the soul.
But Miguel Cardona isn't just a bundle of terrific, inspirational thoughts; he also has serious commitment to addressing inequities in education. He explained in that Connecticut Mirror profile that while his early life experience led him to consider specializing in bilingual education, he decided "it was important non-Latino students saw a Latino in a position as a teacher. So I chose to stay in the regular education setting." And we're sure the National Review and Tucker Carlson will have a great big freakout over Cardona's doctoral dissertation, which argues that really addressing educational disparities will require greater "political will" among educational leaders. Heavens, the abstract even talks about social justice as a good thing!
On policy matters, Cardona agrees with Biden that the benefits of in-person education, especially for elementary kids, are so important that schools should reopen whenever it's possible to do so safely, although he also respects local districts' authority to make the final decision. Education policy wonk Diane Ravitch notes that Cardona
has not taken a strong position for or against charter schools, but the state board has not approved any new charters since he took office in August 2019.
"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," he said during his state confirmation hearing.
During the campaign, Biden promised to stop federal funding of for-profit charters, a small segment of the industry. Charter advocates are pleased that he is not an opponent, but progressive groups are wary because charters drain funding from neighborhood schools.
Ravitch also notes that Connecticut only has 21 charters altogether, but that they include "the no-excuses Achievement First, three of whose charters are on probation because of their harsh disciplinary methods. This action was taken last February, while Cardona was state chief." So it looks like he won't stand for excuses from no-excuses outfits. Good!
We'll close with this observation from the New York Times, which points out that there are some serious disagreements among progressive and centrist Democrats on education policy issues like the role of charters, the use of high-stakes testing, and teachers' unions. Those arguments are likely to get a lot louder with the departure of Betsy DeVos, who was so terrible that everyone agreed that she was the biggest threat to public schools, which allowed Dems to "paper over the deep differences" on policy.
While there's probably some truth to that, we're hoping Miguel Cardona will be able to avoid the DEEP RIFTS narrative and repair the damage done by DeVos. You know, for kids.
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