Miguel Cardona easily won confirmation as the secretary of education on Monday, propelling the Connecticut schools chief into the center of a national effort to help America’s schools reopen and recover from a pandemic that has disrupted a year of learning.
Senators voted 64 to 33 to approve Cardona a month after he faced a relatively friendly confirmation hearing, where he pledged he would “do everything in my power” to ensure a smooth rollout of President Biden’s plan to reopen most elementary and middle schools by the end of April. Idaho Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch both voted no.
Biden has called Cardona “the secretary of education for this moment.” A former fourth-grade teacher and school principal, Cardona fulfills Biden’s promise of hiring a public educator for the nation’s top education job.
As Cardona formally steps into the position, he’ll be assuming a full plate of responsibilities, including championing the president’s stimulus plan that would send another $129 billion to K-12 schools. The Biden administration sees that money as critical to helping schools reopen and recover, but the figure has been criticized as unnecessary by some Republicans. Cardona also will oversee a new federal effort to gather data on the state of in-person and virtual learning across the country.
The lag time between Cardona’s nomination and confirmation means he’s avoided some of the stickier education battles that have played out in recent weeks. The Senate is approving Biden’s cabinet more slowly than under past presidents, as the politically split chamber had to work out a power-sharing agreement and take up former President Trump’s second impeachment.
Department of Education officials already announced last week that states must administer standardized tests this year — though they can be abbreviated, delayed, or taken remotely — and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued its long-awaited updated guidance on reopening schools last month.
Tense negotiations between teachers unions and school officials in several cities have cooled down, and the number of school districts that are open for at least some in-person learning has steadily grown. By some estimates, the president’s goal of reopening a majority of K-8 schools has already been met.
But the question of how to help students and schools recover from the pandemic is still very much an open one. Cardona has said his department will offer guidance to districts, though most of those decisions will be made by states and school districts. Many are now considering expanded summer school, intensive tutoring, and extending the coming school year.
“Though we are beginning to see some 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 education system since long before COVID will still be with us even after the virus is at bay,” Cardona said in December.
Cardona has won praise from across the education world for his longtime focus on closing opportunity gaps for disadvantaged students and pushing schools to better serve students of color, English learners, and students from low-income families. He has a track record of confronting racism in schools and has maintained strong relationships with teachers and their unions in Connecticut.
It’s also an open question how quickly he’ll move to undo rules put in place by former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, and what new civil rights guidance he may issue early in his term.
DeVos revoked several Obama-era policies that the Biden administration has said it wants to reissue, including on school discipline and using race in enrollment and admissions decisions to integrate schools.
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.