Updated at 3:45 p.m. ET Friday
On Wednesday, lawmakers had some tough questions for Miguel Cardona, President Biden's nominee to be the next U.S. education secretary. The Connecticut educator was asked about student loan debt forgiveness, policies for transgender students and, most critically, how he would help schools reopen as the pandemic rages.
Members of the U.S. Senate's education committee didn't have much to go on as they prepared for Cardona's hearing. That's because, along with most of the country, many of those lawmakers are just getting to know him.
In a Biden administration full of familiar faces, Cardona is relatively new to the national spotlight. His biggest job to date has been as Connecticut's education commissioner, a role he's filled for just the past year and half.
As state commissioner, he spent much of his time focused on the impact of pandemic-driven school closures. He was a fierce advocate for Connecticut's most vulnerable children — those with disabilities, children in low-income families and English language learners — as he pushed for schools to reopen, arguing that opportunity gaps are only widening.
"Yes, we're in a health pandemic, but this is also an education emergency," Cardona told The Connecticut Mirror in August. "We have to accelerate our efforts because COVID accelerated disparities. We have to really double down ... to do what's best for kids and for the community."
Under Cardona's leadership, about half of the state's districts were offering families the option to send their children back to school largely in-person, as of the third week of January.
Before his brief tenure as education commissioner, though, Cardona had spent his entire professional career as a public school educator in the city where he grew up: Meriden, Conn.
Meriden is a microcosm of America — with deep pockets of prosperity and poverty alike. The old manufacturing town of nearly 60,000 was once known as the "Silver City" for its silverware factories, until the local industry cratered in the 1970s and early '80s. Today, it's perhaps best known as the home of Ted's steamed cheeseburgers.
While the city itself is majority white, more than half of students in its public schools are Hispanic. Three-quarters of district students qualify for free or reduced-price meals.
Cardona himself grew up in the Yale Acres public housing complex to parents who, like many in Meriden, had come from Puerto Rico. His father was a beloved, local police officer for three decades, known for his distinctive handlebar mustache. The younger Cardona attended Meriden public schools, including a trade high school where he studied automotive tech.
"This system mattered to us on a deep, deep level," says Mark Benigni, the superintendent of Meriden's schools, and also a child of Meriden. He hired Cardona in 2013 to join his small, central office team, after Cardona had spent 15 years as a district teacher and principal. "I mean, [Meriden schools] not only helped to raise us, but it's also where our own children go."
In 1997, Cardona became the first in his family to graduate college, earning a bachelor's in education from Central Connecticut State University. Later, he earned a doctorate from the University of Connecticut.
"I was fortunate to have a supportive family that encouraged my success in school," Cardona wrote in his doctoral capstone. English was his second language, and he said, "Being of Puerto Rican descent, but born in Connecticut, I have always had an awareness of my Hispanic heritage, and like many students, struggled with my identity growing up. During my later school years and into adulthood, I embraced my Hispanic-American identity and now encourage my two young children to do the same."
In December, when he accepted Biden's nomination, Cardona said of his life in Meriden: "I, being bilingual and bicultural, am as American as apple pie and rice and beans."
The Biden transition team did not respond to multiple NPR interview requests for Cardona.
Not long after finishing college, Miguel Cardona became Mr. Cardona, landing his first teaching job in Meriden: fourth grade at Israel Putnam School. Chris Garcia was one of his first students.
"I was really struggling with school, and I wasn't really doing what I needed to do," remembers Garcia, now 31. Instead of getting frustrated with him, for not doing his homework, Cardona quietly pulled him aside. "He spoke into me. He was like, 'Chris, you're a young, Hispanic man. And do not let any obstacle stop you. Whatever you wanna do, you can do.' "
Garcia says he, like Cardona, grew up in the Meriden projects, and hearing his teacher's faith in him motivated him. "He would say it in a way where it's like, 'Wow, I believe it.' "
As luck would have it, a then-reporter in Meriden, Jacqueline Smith, was on-hand in Room 160 to witness the beginning of Cardona's career. She had chosen him for a series of stories comparing the experiences of a new teacher to a classroom veteran.
"He loved the idea of his first classroom and invested about $450 in materials for his class of 12 girls and eight boys," Smith wrote in a 2019 column that appeared in The Middletown Press. She says he bought each student a notebook, a writer's handbook and a box of crayons, as well as "a 'space maker' — a plastic rectangular box to see how they would make it their own."
A classmate of Garcia's, Karla Rodriguez, also 31, remembers Mr. Cardona as a tireless cheerleader, encouraging her passion for singing. He even invited her to sing one of her favorite songs, Cher's "Believe," in front of the whole class, to help boost her confidence.
Years later, in high school, Rodriguez remembers taking the stage at a talent show, "and I hear my name, 'Go Karla!' And I look over, and [Mr. Cardona's] right there. And I would always know he was there because I could hear him, like, he was not shy," she says, laughing.
Garcia says, when he moved to Puerto Rico for fifth grade, Mr. Cardona "sent me a packet this thick of letters [from former classmates] like, 'Hey, we know you're in Puerto Rico. We want you to know that we're thinking about you,' and, you know, 'We care about you.' And I was like, 'Wow, that's really special.'"
When Garcia returned to Meriden and found himself struggling to keep up in school, his mother suggested he visit a neighborhood homework club.
"Well, guess who was there? Mr. Cardona!" Garcia says, laughing at how his former teacher just kept popping up when he needed him most.
At 27, Cardona was hired as a local principal, the youngest in the state, and served in the role for a decade. In 2012, he was named Connecticut's Principal of the Year.
The consensus builder
During his decade as a principal, Cardona made his first foray into policy and politics beyond Meriden, co-chairing a statewide task force dedicated to shrinking the state's yawning educational equity gaps — also the subject of his doctoral capstone.
In the task force's 2011 report, it issued several initial recommendations, including that the state create a center to develop "educational methods that are culturally relevant to English language learners," consider lengthening school days and school years to give students more learning time, and provide families access to universal, high-quality preschool and all-day kindergarten.
Superintendent Mark Benigni says Cardona is at his best when he's trying to find consensus among factions. "Miguel's approach is to listen ... to work together to see the other side of the situation. I don't think he's ever, 'It's my way or the highway.'"
With Cardona's star rising, in 2013, Benigni asked him to leave the principal's office for a tough new role at the district level, working with the local teachers' union to create a new, state-required teacher evaluation system.
The Obama administration had pushed mightily the idea of using standardized test scores to evaluate teachers and, potentially, hold them accountable for poor student performance. The move infuriated many teachers and galvanized their unions in opposition, creating bitter tension between traditional allies: the unions and a Democratic presidential administration.
"This was not a happy time," remembers Erin Benham, a longtime Meriden teacher and the then-head of the local teachers union, the Meriden Federation of Teachers.
When Connecticut's governor ordered all districts to implement a teacher evaluation system, Cardona teamed up with Benham to craft one that didn't leave teachers feeling angry and alienated. Benham remembers Cardona as a keen listener who brought a calming presence to a process that had become overheated in so many other districts.
"You're not going to get someone screaming and yelling. That's not Miguel. I don't think I've ever, ever seen him scream," Benham says.
When teachers argued that they should not be judged on the test scores of students who did not spend the whole year in their classrooms, Cardona agreed. In fact, Benham says, the evaluation system they arrived at downplays the importance of once-a-year standardized tests, counterbalancing their influence with things like parent surveys and classroom evaluations. In a 2013 release, the national American Federation of Teachers said Meriden, under the leadership of Benigni and Cardona, offered "a road map for union-district relations."
Benham spent years working alongside Cardona, first on teacher evaluations and later when Benigni promoted him to assistant superintendent. She says he was a champion of students' social and emotional learning, even before the phrase had buzz in education circles.
"Miguel always had a sense that that was just as important, that you can't just look at academics," Benham says.
She remembers working with him to review district curricula in hopes of finding more time in the school day for academics. But when it was suggested that elementary teachers could cut their morning circle time, when kids get a chance to be social and share, Cardona held fast.
"[If] one of the students gets upset or wants to tell a story, you're not going to say, 'We don't have time for that now.' ... That's not good teaching," Benham says, and Cardona understood that. Even while he wanted to raise the district's math and reading scores, she says, he wasn't willing to cut a circle time or the arts to do it.
In fact, reporter Jacqueline Smith's 2019 recounting of Cardona's fourth-grade classroom shows the value he placed on kids' social and emotional health, even as a first-year teacher. She writes that he had a teal rug where students would gather every morning "for a half-hour 'morning meeting' to talk informally about what's on their minds."
"Students come in with baggage; they can let it out," Cardona told Smith in 1998. "This will assess how the class is feeling."
She says he created a "student-centered classroom," where kids would learn writing, reading and math in small groups.
"You try to make learning involve responsibility and ownership; it's not just about knowledge ... it's academics, social skills and personality," Cardona told Smith.
Not in Kansas anymore
Of more than a dozen former students, district parents and Meriden coworkers NPR interviewed for this story, there's one concern featured prominently: Cardona is so diplomatic, such a consensus-builder, that it's not always clear where he stands on certain issues.
Gwen Samuel runs the Connecticut Parents Union and remembers when her daughter had a bullying problem at her Meriden school. She quickly raised a red flag with the district, when Cardona was assistant superintendent.
"I was like, 'Hey Miguel, this just should not be happening. We got some serious stuff going on.' And that's one of his strengths," Samuel says, noting that Cardona was parent-friendly, responded immediately and came up with a plan to deal with the bullying.
But, she says, she didn't feel that plan went far enough, and ultimately withdrew her daughter from the district. An eagerness to build consensus, Samuel says, too often leads down a path of least resistance. And, with many schools still closed from the pandemic and the debate over when and how they should reopen growing ever more heated, there may be no path of least resistance for the next U.S. secretary of education.
In a recent interview with Lucy Nalpathanchil, host of Connecticut Public Radio's Where We Live, Cardona the consensus-builder was on full display, saying that decisions around closing and reopening schools in the pandemic should not be made at the national or even state level but in "very close partnership" with local health officials.
"At the national level, that's critically important that we work with CDC, that we work with Health and Human Services to make sure that the decisions that are being made around schools are in line with what we know [can] protect people," Cardona said.
But Cardona does not see it as the education secretary's job — or even within the secretary's authority — to force school districts to reopen or adopt these science-based strategies.
"If you want him to heal the nation, he's going to be great for that," says Samuel. "Where he might get in trouble, where he realizes he is not in Kansas, is when he starts to make some of these decisions, because he will have to find his voice."
Since it was Miguel Cardona who helped Karla Rodriguez find her voice back in fourth grade, NPR asked: Does she worry if he's ready for the politics and the spotlight of Washington?
"I do worry because his heart is pure," she says. "He's one of the best people I've ever met."
But Rodriguez believes he's "perfect" for the job, and, when he takes the stage, she says this time she'll be the one cheering loudly.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Tomorrow, the Senate Education Committee will have a lot of questions for Miguel Cardona. They'll be considering his nomination to be the next secretary of education. And he will, no doubt, be asked about school choice, closing opportunity gaps and most critically, how to help America's schools reopen. It will be Cardona's first big moment in the national spotlight. Here's NPR's Cory Turner with a quick primer on the former fourth-grade teacher.
CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Let's start with the man in his own words, when he accepted the ed secretary nomination.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MIGUEL CARDONA: And I, being bilingual and bicultural, am as American as apple pie and rice and beans.
TURNER: Cardona's biggest job to date was as Connecticut's education commissioner for just the past year and a half. Before that, he'd spent his entire career as a public school educator in Meriden, Conn., far from the politics of Washington.
MARK BENIGNI: Meriden is a small, urban district. We have 12 schools, 8,500 students, but our central office core leadership team is about six individuals. So...
TURNER: Mark Benigni is superintendent of Meriden schools. He hired Miguel Cardona in 2013 to join that small team, after Cardona had served as a teacher and principal. Benigni says he and Cardona both grew up in the old factory town of about 60,000, where three quarters of district students qualify for free or low-cost meals.
BENIGNI: Neither of our parents had much. You know, I grew up in a third-floor apartment. He grew up in the projects. This system mattered to us on a deep, deep level. I mean, it not only helped raise us, but it also is where our own children go.
TURNER: Cardona grew up in public housing to parents from Puerto Rico, like many families in Meriden. He attended a local trade high school and studied automotive tech. But when he went to college, he decided to focus not on cars but kids and became a fourth-grade teacher.
CHRIS GARCIA: I remember one time I was kind of struggling with school. You know, I wasn't really doing what I needed to do.
TURNER: Chris Garcia was one of Mr. Cardona's very first students in Meriden.
GARCIA: He spoke into me. He was like, you know, Chris, you're a young, Hispanic man. And do not let any obstacles stop you. Whatever you want to do, you can do.
TURNER: A few years later, when Garcia was having trouble again, his mom sent him to a neighborhood homework club.
GARCIA: Well, guess who's there? (Laughter) Mr. Cardona.
TURNER: In fourth grade, Karla Rodriguez says her passion was singing, so Mr. Cardona encouraged her to sing in front of the whole class. Even years later, in high school, she remembers taking the stage at a talent show.
KARLA RODRIGUEZ: And I hear my name - go, Karla. And I look over, and he's right there. And I would always know he was there because I could hear him. Like, he was not shy. You would always hear him in the crowd (laughter).
TURNER: At 27, Cardona became the youngest principal in Connecticut. Later, as a district leader, he was known for his ability to find consensus, says Erin Benham, the former head of the Meriden teachers union.
ERIN BENHAM: Like, you're not going to get someone screaming and yelling. That's not Miguel. I don't think I've ever, ever seen him scream and yell.
TURNER: Gwen Samuel runs the Connecticut Parents Union and says her daughter had a bullying issue in Meriden when Miguel Cardona was assistant superintendent.
GWEN SAMUEL: I'm like, hey, Miguel, this just should not be happening. We got some serious stuff going on, and that's one of his strengths.
TURNER: Samuel says he was parent-friendly and responded quickly but that his plan ultimately did not work for her. And Samuel worries that Cardona is so willing to find consensus and so new to national politics that she doesn't know what he stands for.
SAMUEL: If you wanted to heal the nation, he's going to be great for that. Where he might get in trouble, where he realizes he is not in Kansas is when he starts to make some of these decisions because he will have to find his voice.
TURNER: Since it was Cardona who helped Karla Rodriguez find her voice back in fourth grade, I asked her, does she worry if he's ready for the politics of Washington?
RODRIGUEZ: I do worry because his heart is pure. He's one of the best people I've ever met.
TURNER: But she's also thrilled and says this time when he takes the big stage, she'll be the one cheering loudly.
Cory Turner, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF FOUK'S "COCONUTS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.