About 70 percent of the state’s schools reopened for in-person classes this fall. But when some Connecticut schools decided to shut down in-person learning in November, Cardona and the state’s acting Department of Health commissioner wrote in an email to districts that they did not think “arbitrary, date-based closures of school are warranted at this time.”
The state health and education chiefs said the prevention strategies schools are using are working, and the state wasn’t seeing “sustained person to person transmission” of the virus in schools, or outbreaks at schools, despite a surge in the state. That put Cardona at odds with the state teachers union, although decisions about remote or in-person classes have been left to local districts.
The union has demanded statewide rules on sharing data about school coronavirus cases, testing and availability of personal protective equipment.
Still, the teachers union and other education unions in Connecticut endorsed Cardona’s selection as head of the Education Department.
“While this challenge has been a rocky road — and many issues remain unresolved — teachers and school support staff have appreciated his openness and collaboration. If selected as Secretary of Education, Dr. Cardona would be a positive force for public education — light years ahead of the dismal Betsy DeVos track record,” a coalition of the unions said.
As part of the effort to reopen schools, Cardona issued an order requiring schools to adopt face covering policies, with several exceptions. But a group of parents and an organization known as the Connecticut Freedom Alliance sued — so far unsuccessfully — to block the policy’s enforcement and have asked to move the case to the state Supreme Court.
Cardona also has said the state plans to carry on with statewide testing later in the school year. The pandemic led to federal waivers for all states on testing last spring, but DeVos has held firm that testing should proceed for the current school year, and Cardona’s position in Connecticut could translate to the rest of the country if confirmed.
One issue in many states where teaching has shifted online is access to the internet and a device to use for school work from home. Connecticut had the same problems last spring but spent millions on laptops and internet connections, in part using federal aid. The state declared earlier this month that it is the first to meet the needs of every student who had an issue accessing online classes.
And to fill a demand for teachers made worse by the pandemic and improve the diversity of the teaching workforce, Cardona recruited college students to work in public schools.
Cardona’s parents moved to Connecticut from Puerto Rico and were living in a housing project when he was born, the Connecticut Mirror reported. He spoke only Spanish until he started school.
He was named Connecticut’s principal of the year in 2012.
As Education secretary, Cardona would help lead Biden’s charge to boost federal funding to education so a majority of schools can reopen in the first 100 days of his administration, which the president-elect has outlined as a “national priority.”
If confirmed, Cardona would join Xavier Becerra as Secretary of Health and Human Services and Alejandro Mayorkas as head of the Department of Homeland Security as other Latinos in Biden’s Cabinet.
The Congressional Hispanic Caucus, which pressed Biden to appoint a Latino to the Education post and other Cabinet-level positions, said only two Latinos in that group of federal leaders wouldn’t properly represent the country. It backed Cardona as well as former National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García, noting a Latina has never had the job.
Other finalists for the Education secretary role included Leslie Fenwick, the former dean of Howard University’s college of education and Sharon Contreras, the superintendent of schools in Guilford County, S.C.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, who herself was seen as a potential contender for the role early on, praised Cardona earlier this week, noting he was a former AFT member who was “committed to collaboration.”
“His deep respect for educators and their unions will travel with him to Washington,” she said Tuesday, “and that commitment to collaboration is crucial to providing the resources and social and emotional supports to safely reopen schools.”
Cardona would be the third Latino to run the Education Department. Lauro Fred Cavazos Jr. was the first, working in the post during the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations. And John B. King Jr. during the Obama administration was the second.
Cardona would replace DeVos, who was sharply critical of the influence of labor unions and blamed the “establishment” for issues in the U.S. education system. DeVos promoted alternatives to traditional public schools as part of a school choice agenda that was anathema to teachers unions.
Biden, a self-described union guy, ultimately steered clear of current and former national union presidents to replace DeVos, and his selection of Cardona was met with relief from education advocates who have supported the current education secretary and her unrelenting advocacy of school choice.
“Had Biden picked a union leader or equivalent, it would have been akin to an act of war on the progress of the last three decades of pushing power to parents, and on those who have fought to get their kids educated this year, whether back in traditional schools or by their own hand,” said Jeanne Allen, the founder and CEO of the Center for Education Reform.
Biden has called for eliminating federal funding to for-profit charter schools and expanding scrutiny of federal dollars that help create all types of new charter schools.
But some of the party’s charter school advocates, including Democrats for Education Reform, have criticized efforts to scale back federal support for charter schools, saying it will cut off options for low-income students.
Cardona has expressed support for charter schools, telling the Connecticut Post last year that he wants parents — and his own children — to have choices and options for where they attend school. As education commissioner, meanwhile, he’s pushed low-performing charters to improve their performance.
Though during his confirmation hearing last year, Cardona noted that his work would center on traditional public schools.
“Charter schools provide choice for parents that are seeking choice, so I think it’s a viable option, but [neighborhood schools] that’s going to be the core work that not only myself but the people behind me in the agency that I represent will have while I’m commissioner.”
On the campaign trail, Biden vowed to triple federal funding for low-income schools through the Title I program, including boosting teacher pay. The president-elect also has committed to swiftly reversing DeVos’ policies at the Education Department, including her Title IX rules governing sexual misconduct in schools and colleges, rescission of guidance promoting the rights of transgender students and rollbacks of Obama-era regulations targeting for-profit colleges.
On the higher education front, Biden has promised to double the Pell Grant and push for new federal funding to allow states to eliminate tuition at community colleges for all students and at four-year public universities for students from families earning $125,000 or less.
Biden’s administration also will have to decide whether to relent to growing progressive demands that he use executive powers to cancel large swaths of outstanding debt owed by federal loan borrowers.
Nicole Gaudiano, Juan Perez Jr., Bianca Quilantan and Michael Stratford contributed to this report.