President-elect Joe Biden’s pick to lead the federal Department of Education -- Miguel Cardona -- has deep roots in Connecticut public schools.
Biden officially confirmed the long-rumored pick Tuesday evening, tapping Connecticut’s current education commissioner for a spot in his Cabinet if he’s confirmed by the Senate.
Cardona’s current boss, Gov. Ned Lamont, said he believes his commissioner’s elevation has a lot to do with Cardona’s commitment to in-person learning in Connecticut during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“You saw the on-again, off-again with the schools in our neighboring states. I think he was steady. I think he gave parents and teachers confidence that we’re only going to keep our schools open as long as we could do it safely,” Lamont said at a Tuesday news conference.
And indeed, one of Biden’s declared priorities as he takes office is to get the majority of schools reopened amid the pandemic. Cardona spoke on Connecticut Public Radio’s Where We Live last month about why he believes it’s important to keep schools open.
“There is no substitute for in-classroom learning,” he said. “The issue of attendance and enrollment and engagement disproportionately affects our urban centers that are a little more dense or have greater need.”
Lamont chose Cardona to be the state education commissioner in 2019. He looks back on it as a surprise pick to some because Cardona wasn’t a superintendent at the time -- he was the assistant superintendent in Meriden.
But Lamont said he picked him anyway, because Cardona’s empathy for teachers and students was palpable.
“He was a terrific assistant super, a terrific teacher-evaluation specialist for us, as well as a principal -- a great guy to work with, a super leader but an even better person,” said Mark Benigni, Meriden superintendent of schools.
Benigni said that while the nomination is significant for his city -- Cardona is a lifelong Meriden resident -- it means more for public education.
“Miguel represents all that’s right about public education in America,” Benigni said.
Cardona himself gave a taste of his educational philosophy in another Where We Live interview when he was elevated to the top job in Connecticut.
“One of the things that I really value and I want to put energy to is ensuring that all kids have high expectations,” he said, “especially the children that need to grow more or that have to close the gaps -- that our expectations are super high and that we support them through the process.”
Himself a product of the Meriden Public School district, Cardona went on to graduate from Central Connecticut State University. Mark Ojakian, president of the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system, said the nomination shows that anything is possible for local graduates.
He calls it “an overall win” for Connecticut, but he also said the “fair-minded” Cardona won’t favor the Nutmeg State over others.
“He understands that all states and regions in our country have challenges when it comes to higher education,” Ojakian said.
In Cardona’s role as state education commissioner, Ojakian said he and the commissioner collaborated on reopening local schools in the time of coronavirus.
“He did an excellent job of reopening those schools, and I think that he will do the same in providing a blueprint and some guidance that’s sorely needed in other states around how to reopen safely, effectively and according to public health protocols.”
Ojakian has experience working with Cardona when the commissioner was assistant superintendent in Meriden and Ojakian’s CSCU partnered with the district for dual-credit opportunities at Middlesex Community College.
“He listens. He understands,” Ojakian said. “But, he leads.”
Last year, Cardona, whose parents are Puerto Rican, became the first Latin American education commissioner in state history.
Zulma Toro, the first Latina president of Cardona’s alma mater, CCSU, knows firsthand what diversity and inclusion means to changing student demographics across the state.
She said selecting Cardona to lead the nation’s schools is a testament to Biden’s commitment to these students.
“First-generation college students from humble beginnings, students whose first language may not be English, who are dedicated hard workers and determined to be successful in their education but also in life,” she told Connecticut Public Radio in an interview from Rincon in her native Puerto Rico.
Cardona’s parents came to Connecticut from Puerto Rico when they were children. Cardona began his public school education as an English language learner.
Toro said she and many Puerto Ricans couldn’t be prouder.
“In fact, the main newspaper in Puerto Rico last Thursday dedicated its front page to Miguel and the possibility of Miguel becoming the U.S. Department of Education secretary,” Toro said. “Everyone here is extremely excited, and I think it speaks to the talent that is produced by this Caribbean island.”
At a time when Puerto Rico has closed many of its schools due to natural disasters and the pandemic, Toro says Cardona understands how interruptions affect students and will be well positioned to implement programs like the ones that helped support his educational success.
Cardona got his doctorate at another state school -- the University of Connecticut.
There’s no word yet on who’ll replace Cardona if he’s confirmed, but Lamont on Tuesday hinted that one of Cardona’s deputies could get the nod.