Leslie Fenwick, Miguel Cardona seen as contenders for education secretary

Both have positions that could draw fire, though in different ways. Fenwick is a fierce critic of many attempts at education reform, including some touted by President Barack Obama’s Education Department. Cardona has promoted a return to school buildings during the pandemic, saying it is imperative to get children back to face-to-face learning.

The situation remains fluid, and no decisions have been made. Three people familiar with the process said the transition committee is focusing its attention on these two candidates at the moment. Another person cautioned that others are in the mix. All four spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal conversations.

Fenwick and a spokesman for Cardona declined to comment Wednesday on the education secretary post.

An announcement has been expected by next week, as President-elect Joe Biden works to name his entire Cabinet before Christmas, but it’s possible that timing will change. Education has proved to be a tricky position to fill, as transition officials consider competing opinions within the Democratic Party over education policy and Biden’s effort to assemble a diverse set of leaders.

As a candidate, Biden promised to choose a public school educator as secretary, raising expectations that the nominee will come from the world of K-12 schools. He’s also expected to name a person of color to the post, and most of the people considered have been Black or Latino. Fenwick is a Black woman, and Cardona is a Latino man. Both have experience as classroom teachers, though Fenwick has worked as a dean and scholar in higher education for many years.

Fenwick has criticized education programs such as Teach For America — a nonprofit that for years recruited only new college graduates, gave them five weeks of summer training and placed them in high-need schools — and the move to inject competition and corporate-inspired management techniques into schools. She’s also spoken against for-profit charter schools and taxpayer-funded private school vouchers.

She does not just argue that these ideas are misguided but calls them “schemes” that drain money from public schools, driven by people looking to profit from public education. She also says advocacy for these policies is a form of resistance to the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision.

“These schemes are often viewed as new and innovative, but when you look at the history of these schemes — and I use the word ‘schemes’ purposefully — you find that they are rooted in resistance to the Brown legal decision,” Fenwick said in a video published in September.

Instead, Fenwick advocates for more equitable school funding formulas and better access to credentialed and committed teachers.

Early in her career, Fenwick was a middle school science teacher and a rookie teacher of the year in Toledo, her hometown. She was dean of the Howard University School of Education for nearly 10 years and remains on the faculty.

Her husband, H. Patrick Swygert, is president emeritus of Howard University and former president of the State University of New York at Albany.

Cardona was named Connecticut’s education commissioner last year and formally installed after a legislative vote in February. He began his career as a fourth-grade teacher, became the youngest principal in the state at 28 and was named principal of the year in 2012. He also served as co-chairman of a state task force examining achievement gaps.

After the pandemic forced schools to close, he worked to procure devices for students who needed them to participate in remote schooling and pushed to reopen buildings.

“We will continue to do everything we can to ensure as many children as possible have access to opportunities for in-person learning,” Cardona said this month. That comment came in response to teachers union demands that the state meet certain safety precautions or close buildings.

Cardona added that closed schools were the result of staffing shortages, not evidence of virus transmission.

He also has consistently voiced concern that the pandemic was hurting certain students more than others. “While many things are unclear during this time in our nation’s history, there is one thing that is not; this epidemic has further exacerbated inequities that have been there all along,” he wrote in May.

Cardona sees an urgency to in-person school and has pushed districts to offer that to parents, said spokesman Peter Yazbak.

“His position has been that in-person learning is the way that we best address the educational crisis caused by the closure of schools last spring,” he said. “A lot of people who are not from Connecticut assume that Connecticut is just Greenwich. But we have a lot of urban districts with students who have social and emotional needs as well as academic needs. The best way for them to get the services they need is in school, with counselors and their teachers.”

The education secretary’s first task will be to help guide schools through the final phase of the pandemic. Biden has said he wants to see schools reopen and to give them the support they need to do so, including “clear, consistent, effective national guidelines.”

Cardona’s parents moved to Connecticut from Puerto Rico and were living in a housing project in Meriden when he was born. Under his tenure, Connecticut became the first state to require high schools to offer courses on Black and Latino studies.

The Fix’s Eugene Scott analyzes some of President-elect Joe Biden’s Cabinet picks and why he is under ongoing pressure to make more diverse picks. (The Washington Post)

In Washington, public speculation for the education job has centered on a pair of teachers union leaders: Lily Eskelsen García, who stepped down in September as president of the National Education Association, and Randi Weingarten, longtime president of the American Federation of Teachers. But neither woman is believed to be a leading candidate at this point, people familiar with the process said.

While Eskelsen García has made clear she wants the job, Weingarten has been lower key about the matter and in an interview said she would be pleased with either Fenwick or Cardona.

“Both are very, very solid candidates,” Weingarten said.

Others believed to have been under consideration during the deliberations include several big-city superintendents, Rep. Jahana Hayes (D-Conn.), and a handful of leaders in higher education, including Michael L. Lomax, president and chief executive of the United Negro College Fund, and Eloy Ortiz Oakley, chancellor of California Community Colleges, the largest public higher education system in the country.

As a candidate, Biden promised to address the shortfalls of U.S. education primarily through increased funding, a sharp departure from President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who proposed slashing the federal education budget and increased support for private schools.

Biden’s plan is also a shift from Presidents George W. Bush and Obama, who focused on structural reforms and increased accountability for results. Those ideas angered teachers unions and others because they relied in part on testing to assess the effectiveness of schools and teachers.

By contrast, Biden proposed tripling the $15 billion Title I funds that support high-poverty schools and said he would double the number of psychologists, counselors, nurses and social workers in schools, provide new money for school infrastructure, and dramatically increase federal spending for special education.

He also proposed forgiving college debt and making community college free.

Matt Viser contributed to this report.

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