“We want to support you so that you can get to the great work of helping kids. You have to commit to that partnership if you’re a public school, and you are.”
That’s Miguel Cardona, President-Elect Joe Biden’s pick for U.S. education secretary and current education commissioner of Connecticut, speaking last February to leaders of the charter school network Achievement First, which serves 14,000 students, almost all low-income and of color. The occasion was a Connecticut State Board of Education meeting where board members acknowledged the network’s higher test scores and lower chronic absenteeism than the state average but put three of the network’s schools on probation for not following rules about updating suspension reports.
Cardona’s response—our priority is “helping kids''—makes me hopeful that his agenda is aligned with Biden’s promise to heal our deep cultural and political divides. After all, America’s education system has divisions that far predate Trump and COVID-19.
Steering clear of the politically-divisive issues in education
Here’s the nutshell. Some prioritize the “input” side of education, like increasing school funding and giving higher salaries to teachers who have master’s degrees and more seniority—this group is typically led by union leaders and people who oppose school choice. On the other side are those who prioritize “output,” like student achievement and college and career readiness—they are increasingly parents of color and education “reformers.” Recently, Andrew Rotherham made a similar distinction between “suppliers”—schools and universities —and “consumers,” parents and their children.
Among the many candidates on Biden’s shortlist for education secretary—NEA’s Lily Eskelsen Garcia, AFT’s Randi Weingarten, Howard University’s Leslie Fenwick—Cardona might have the best chance to lessen that divide. While no school-choice zealot, he told the Connecticut Post, “As a parent myself I want to make sure I have options for my children.” In saying so, he acknowledged that sometimes the only output-focused alternative in poor cities like New Haven and Hartford is charter schools. Why should America prioritize a single delivery mechanism for educating an increasingly multi-faceted and diverse nation of children? Why should America not listen to the parents pleading for choice?
Such parents were present at that same Connecticut State Board of Education meeting earlier this year. They noted their children “jumped by whole grade levels once they transferred into Achievement First.” Others charged that the state education bureaucracy “is more focused on creating roadblocks for the very schools that are succeeding and helping our brown and Black children in our communities like mine.” Importantly, Cardona listened to them.
Maybe Cardona’s openness to different types of public schools comes from personal experience. Raised in a housing project in Meriden, Connecticut, by parents born in Puerto Rico, this first-generation college graduate remembers “being the only Latino in many of my college preparation high school classes and throughout my college courses.” He started his career in Meriden as a fourth-grade teacher and rose quickly to become Connecticut’s youngest principal. Next came promotions to assistant superintendent and, last year, state commissioner, before being tapped for Biden’s cabinet at age 45.
A focus on equity and closing the opportunity gap
Cardona describes his “purpose in education” as “evolv[ing] the thinking of the next generation.” He says his passion is equity, a long-pressing issue in a state where a recent administration of the SAT in Connecticut showed a 90-point gap between white students and students of color.
This intense focus on the least-privileged appears to drive his agenda to keep schools open in Connecticut. He argues that closing schools doesn’t reduce transmission in other places, as long as students and teachers wear masks and practice social distancing, and only “further exacerbates inequities that have been there all along.” To prove his point he released data showing disadvantaged students are missing twice as much remote instruction as wealthier students (despite closure of the digital divide) and a mere 4% of students in the state’s 10 lowest-performing districts have any sort of in-school instruction. “It’s families in already challenged communities that are under-resourced, that need more support,” explained Cardona. “We need to do more. I am passionate about ensuring that students can achieve equitable outcomes throughout the state regardless of ZIP code or skin color, which unfortunately often today still serve as a predictor of outcomes.”
In other words, Cardona is choosing output over input, consumer over supplier. Though he didn’t make the cut when education activists ranked their choices, he has the essential mindset that parents are looking for--someone who puts kids welfare ahead of adult considerations. And, in fact, parent pressure may have contributed to Biden’s rejection of a union leader.
From the Connecticut Mirror: “Cardona has walked a political tightrope as he tries to balance the needs of parents, who saw their children struggle to learn at home last spring, against well-organized teachers unions, which have called on the state to close schools until their safety demands are met.” While one would be hard-pressed to label him a hard-charging education reformer, he has, at times, bucked those who oppose accountability, insisting on the necessity of assessing student levels of proficiency. And he does seem to be a fan of high standards. Of the much-maligned Common Core state standards, he said, “I could find flaws in parts of them…but at the end of the day having high expectations and high standards for kids is a good thing.”
Here’s Dacia Toll, CEO of Achievement First, quoted by 50CAN’s Marc Porter Magee:
And here’s evidence that he has a track record on reading achievement and getting results for historically-marginalized students:
This choice of Cardona may signal more from Biden than building the diverse Cabinet he promised. I suspect Joe Biden knows that he won the election due to Trump fatigue, not because the country embraced the Democratic Party platform. For evidence, just look down-ballot: the last Democratic president who came to office without a Senate majority was Grover Cleveland, in 1885. In fact, rifts within the Party mirror those in the microcosmos of education, with so-called “progressives” urging radical measures like banning charter schools, even as Black and Brown voters increasingly favor school choice.
If Cardona’s words and actions as a federal education leader match his work in Connecticut—increasing opportunities for underprivileged students, bolstering the guardrails of accountability and data-based decision-making, bucking special interests—perhaps he can help heal educational rifts and bring together divergent groups, much like Joe Biden hopes to do with all of America.
Is it possible? Who knows. But, if it is, Biden may have made the right choice.
Manuel Cardoza is a student at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. He is a 2015 graduate of Chicago’s Rauner College Prep, a campus of the Noble Network of Charter Schools.