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Biden’s Education Secretary pick is a ‘clever play’ to balance various interests

Aarthi Swaminathan and Reggie Wade
·5 min read

President-elect Joe Biden nominated Miguel Cardona, a former public school teacher and current Connecticut Education Commissioner, to be the next U.S. Department of Education Secretary on Tuesday.

Rick Hess, an education policy expert at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, called the move a “clever” one since it wouldn’t cause a stir with Democrats or Republicans.

I don’t think he’s very well known on the national stage, which can be good or bad, … But it’s a relatively clever play,” Hess told Yahoo Finance. “Given the box that Biden was in, where the unions want to have sign-off, but he doesn’t want to look like a captive of the union or alienate interests. Cardona seems like a neat solution.”

Cardona, who is Puerto Rican, has a long history in education that began as an elementary school teacher and later as a principal for 10 years. Connecticut’s governor appointed him as the state’s education commissioner in August 2019.

Miguel Cardona. (Photo: University of Connecticut/ Shawn Kornegay/ Ryan Glista)
Miguel Cardona. (Photo: University of Connecticut/ Shawn Kornegay/ Ryan Glista)

“Having walked the walk as an educator, administrator, and public school parent, Dr. Cardona has a proven track record as an innovative leader who will fight for all students, and for a better, fairer, more successful education system,” the Biden-Harris team said in a statement, adding that he will “make getting students of all ages and in every community back in the classroom safely a national priority.”

Cardona will take over the reins from current ED Secretary Betsy DeVos, who has held the position for Trump’s entire presidency and implemented policies that were repeatedly assailed by Democrats.

And while DeVos pushed to reopen schools amid the coronavirus pandemic, “the national strategy was missing,” Mark Ojakian, president of the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system since 2015, told Yahoo Finance. “In Connecticut, we did an excellent job of opening up our institutions and had very few cases relative to the rest of the country. And so I think the other parts of the country could benefit from a more strategic roadmap of how to get there, leaving the specifics to each state.”

National Education Association (NEA) President Becky Pringle said that Cardona’s past experience as a former public school teacher would help the reopening process, as “he understands what's at stake for students and promises to respect the voice of educators.”

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos attends a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic response event about reopening schools hosted by U.S. President Donald Trump at the White House in Washington, U.S., August 12, 2020. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos attends a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic response event about reopening schools hosted by U.S. President Donald Trump at the White House in Washington, U.S., August 12, 2020. (Photo: REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)

Balancing act

As Hess noted, Biden’s choice for ED was a tricky one: Biden’s team had to make a choice that would not only appease the unions, but also someone who would be palatable to the right.

In Cardona, the compromise was clear. Not only is he “a veteran educator, he comes from a deep blue state, the union has given him a thumbs up, but there’s also nothing that marks him really as one side or the other of the democratic reform,” Hess explained. So “it’s a lot like when a president nominates a Supreme Court justice with no paper trail … if you want to avoid a fight, you nominate somebody who doesn’t have a long track record.”

Those who have worked firsthand with Cardona in Connecticut said they’ve had a great experience working with him.

“I’ve known Miguel for I believe my entire tenure as president of the university system,” Ojakian told Yahoo Finance. “I couldn’t have been more thrilled that he’s received this appointment. He’s a great leader in Connecticut and I have every confidence that be a great leader in Washington.”

UNITED STATES - JULY 13: The U.S. Department of Education building is pictured in Washington on Monday, July 13, 2020. (Photo by Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)
The U.S. Department of Education building is pictured in Washington on Monday, July 13, 2020. (Photo: Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

Ojakian added that he had worked with Cardona when he was a superintendent on various issues, including dual enrollment, where high school students can take courses at colleges, and other efforts from K-12 to higher education. And when the coronavirus pandemic hit, Ojakian said Cardona had worked closely with him and others to reopen schools and campuses, and prepare teachers.

At the same time, experts across the education space cheered the appointment.

Former Education Secretary John B. King Jr., who served in the Obama administration, said Cardona’s “leadership in Connecticut demonstrates a deep commitment to education equity and diversity,” and will help address “persistent opportunity gaps for students of color and those from low-income backgrounds.”

American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten, who many had also floated as a potential nominee, said a statement that Cardona’s skills would be a welcome departure from those of Betsy DeVos.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, speaks before a crowd of striking educators at Capital High School in Charleston, West Virginia, U.S., February, 19 2019.  REUTERS/Lexi Browning
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, speaks before a crowd of striking educators at Capital High School in Charleston, West Virginia, U.S., February, 19 2019. (Photo: REUTERS/Lexi Browning)

“Miguel Cardona is not just a proud product of public schools — he’s made strengthening public education and fighting for equity his life’s work,” she stated. “With his experience as a student, fourth-grade teacher, principal, assistant superintendent and commissioner in Connecticut, Dr. Cardona — a former AFT member — will transform the Education Department to help students thrive, a reversal of the DeVos disaster of the last four years.”

Weingarten also drew on her relationship with Cardona during his time in the Meriden, Connecticut school district. “His deep respect for educators and their unions will travel with him to Washington — and that commitment to collaboration is crucial to providing the resources and social and emotional support to safely reopen schools,” she added.

NEA’s Pringle emphasized that she was also looking forward to working with Cardona: “In these tough times, students, educators, and families face unprecedented challenges — from the COVID-19 pandemic and economic crisis to the systemic racism that has held back too many students for too long. We look forward to partnering with Secretary-designate Miguel Cardona in taking on these challenges together.”

Aarthi Swaminathan is a reporter for Yahoo Finance, covering education. She can be reached at aarthi@yahoofinance.com. Follow her on Twitter at @aarthiswami.

Reggie Wade is a writer for Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @ReggieWade.

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