Cardona seeks to pivot from DeVos era at Education
Miguel Cardona was sworn in on Tuesday as the Biden administration’s secretary of Education, taking over an agency at the center of the debate over reopening schools after enduring four years of controversy under former Secretary Betsy DeVos.
Cardona, who was confirmed by the Senate in a bipartisan 66-33 vote, is a former public school teacher who most recently served as Connecticut’s education commissioner.
Education advocates believe his experience with public schools will be critical to rebuilding trust in the department among teachers and families and will allow the focus to return to education policy rather than the politics that dominated DeVos’s tenure.
“Fundamentally, I think they are replacing a secretary who had contempt for the mission of the department with somebody who believes in it,” said Jonathan Schorr, a partner at Be Clear Communications who previously served as communications director at the department during the Obama administration.
President Biden stressed when he nominated Cardona for the role that it was important to have an educator leading the department, something critics of DeVos had repeatedly criticized during her tenure.
DeVos was a GOP donor who had long advocated for charter schools and school voucher programs. Her confirmation required former Vice President Pence to cast a tie-breaking vote in her favor.
While in office, DeVos largely unwound Obama-era policies that provided additional civil rights protections to students and protected them from for for-profit colleges. She aggressively pushed school choice and rarely advocated for public education. The final year of her tenure was marked by the shuttering of schools during the pandemic and the Trump administration’s subsequent effort to resume in-person learning.
“The agenda that DeVos brought was less a vision than a program to undo what Obama had put in place,” Schorr said. “And you see a department that has really been decimated by four years of that.”
Cardona will be charged with simultaneously reversing many of the rollbacks that took place during the Trump administration while also implementing a Biden administration agenda that has put an emphasis on closing gaps in education inequality that have been laid bare by the coronavirus pandemic.
Schools halted in-person learning nearly a year ago as the coronavirus spread across the country with little information available about how it affected young people. In the time since, advocates have sounded the alarm about students falling behind in their studies and grappling with the social and emotional stress of being kept out of the classroom and away from friends.
One of Biden’s pledges for his first 100 days in office is to have students resume in-person learning. The goal has been subject to intense scrutiny as the administration offered shifting definitions of how it defined in-person learning.
Recent studies have shown in-person learning is generally low risk as long as proper precautions are in place, and the steady proliferation of vaccines has further lowered the risks. Republicans have sought to weaponize the issue, accusing Biden and Democrats of being beholden to teachers’ unions and waiting until the president’s economic relief package is passed before green-lighting a return to the classrooms.
Cardona lacks the authority to mandate schools resume in-person learning. But allies argued he is well-positioned to use the bully pulpit of the secretary role to restore confidence in the government’s message about reopening classrooms and keeping them open.
“He uniquely arrives in this position coming from the position of being superintendent of instruction in a state where he had to make those choices and decisions,” said Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association, the country’s largest labor union of educators and school personnel.
Reopening schools will be the focus of Cardona’s first trip as Education secretary. He will travel with first lady Jill Biden, a teacher herself, to his hometown of Meriden, Conn., and to Waterford, Pa., to tour two public schools that have resumed in-person learning to hear about best practices.
“His No. 1 priority is reopening schools, and so certainly taking a trip with the first lady is an indication of his commitment to that,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at a Tuesday briefing.
Officials said Cardona is likely to delegate oversight of reopening schools to another appointee to focus more broadly on the key pillars of his agenda, which Pringle described as “access, opportunity, equity and excellence.”
Soon the discussion will shift from reopening schools to keeping schools open, experts said. And Cardona’s work will need to focus more broadly on addressing inequality and steering a department that for the past four years was a lightning rod for controversy.
“The pandemic showed us all the ways schools absolutely were not working for families and students,” said Khalilah Harris, managing director of education policy at American Progress. “So this concept of going back to normal is problematic in and of itself. The secretary is going to have to reestablish an agenda that’s pro-public education and … lets schools know whatever form they come in, that they have the support of the Department of Education.”