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'He understands the challenges': Latinos praise Miguel Cardona, Biden's education secretary pick

To see someone who "represents me," says Estela López of Connecticut's education board, is "incredibly powerful."
Image: Miguel Cardona
Connecticut State Commissioner of Education Miguel Cardona speaks with students at Berlin High School on Jan. 28.Devin Leith-Yessian / Berlin Citizen/Record-Journal via AP

Miguel Cardona, Connecticut’s first Latino commissioner of education, is poised to become the nation's next education secretary — a pick that satisfies President-elect Joe Biden's campaign promise to appoint someone with public school experience, after President Donald Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos, was criticized for championing private schools and being an out-of-touch billionaire.

If confirmed, Cardona would be the second Puerto Rican and the third Latino secretary of education, after John B. King, Jr., who served in the Obama administration, and Lauro Cavazos, who served in the Reagan and Bush administrations.

“Miguel Cardona is a visionary, humble and experienced educator who will lead the Department of Education out of the DeVosian wilderness and toward excellence," the chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Rep. Joaquín Castro, D-Texas, told NBC News.

Estela López, vice chair of the Connecticut State Board of Education, said she began to cry when she learned of Cardona's nomination early Tuesday morning.

"This was to me very similar to when Justice Sonia Sotomayor was appointed because this is so significant and symbolic," López said, who is also a senior associate at the nonprofit Excelencia in Education. "Like Sotomayor, Cardona grew up in the projects. When he went to school, he didn't speak English. His life story is very compelling."

Cardona, 45, was appointed to the top education post in Connecticut in August 2019. López said she remembers the impression he left when he interviewed for the position.

"He did an excellent interview, he was knowledgeable, but he's a humble human being. He's someone who's not a showoff, even though he has qualifications, experience and values," López said.

When the Covid-19 pandemic began in March and schools were forced to transition into remote learning, Cardona helped provide over 100,000 laptops to students in Connecticut. However, he has been a fierce advocate of reopening schools, worried that the pandemic will widen the educational achievement gap between students of color and their white classmates, as well as leave English-language learners behind.

Both issues have been enduring struggles in Connecticut, which has grappled with one of the widest achievement gaps in the country.

"He understands the challenges," said López. "Part of what he knows how to do very well is identify best practices and learn from them." She said Cardona has worked closely with Connecticut's governor, Ned Lamont, to promote opportunities for face-to-face learning in the classroom.

Cardona's views line up with Biden's plan to reopen most U.S. schools by the end of his first 100 days in office. Biden is promising new federal guidelines on school opening decisions and a “large-scale” Education Department effort to identify and share the best ways to teach during a pandemic.

From bilingual public school student to education leader

Cardona, whose parents were from Puerto Rico, was raised in a housing project in Meriden, Connecticut, and spoke Spanish only when he entered the city's public schools.

"One of the challenges of bilingual education is that people who are bilingual may be perceived as knowing less, instead of acknowledging that we know two languages. We may have an accent, but we know two languages," López said. "We know more, we don't know less. He understands that and the importance of emphasizing both languages."

In 1998, Cardona returned to the public school system that he had attended as a child, this time as a fourth-grade teacher. At age 28, he became the youngest principal in the state before working his way up to assistant superintendent of the district, NBC Connecticut reported.

After serving as a school principal for a decade, Cardona became assistant superintendent for teaching and learning in 2013. He also served as the co-chairperson of the Connecticut Legislative Achievement Gap Task Force as well as co-chairperson of the Connecticut Birth to Grade Three Leaders Council. He also taught for four years as an adjunct professor at the University of Connecticut in the Department of Educational Leadership, according to his official biography. After graduating from Central Connecticut State University, he completed a master’s in bilingual and bicultural education and earned a doctorate in education.

Amid his efforts to reopen schools in Connecticut this year, Cardona managed to garner support from the state's teachers unions.

"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," the Board of Education Union Coalition, which represents over 60,000 public school employees, said in a statement this month.

"Miguel Cardona’s formative experience as a teacher and administrator has been critical to his accomplishments as Connecticut Education Commissioner. He has been tested by the unprecedented upheaval caused by the pandemic. While this challenge has been a rocky road — and many issues remain unresolved — teachers and school support staff have appreciated his openness and collaboration," the union added.

Cardona was backed by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, which has pressed Biden to appoint more Latinos to Cabinet positions, a mission that persists beyond Cardona's nomination.

“We will continue to push for a Latina to serve in President Biden’s cabinet," Castro said. "The Transition Team is aware of many talented and well-qualified Latinas for various cabinet posts."

In a letter to Biden this month, the caucus cited Cardona’s accomplishments and said he “fully grasps the challenges that English as Second Language (ESL) Learners, Latinos, and other minority students face in America’s classrooms.”

As a bilingual education leader herself, López sees Cardona's possible appointment as a meaningful accomplishment.

"I know that when people hear my accent, they think less of me, you know, like a second-class citizen," she said. "So to now see someone that represents me being appointed secretary of Education, while also bringing credibility to that position as well as knowledge and care, someone who's passionate about education — it's incredibly powerful."

CORRECTION: (Dec. 22, 8:38p.m.ET) A previous version of this article incorrectly said Cardona’s appointment was precedent-setting. Cardona will not be the first Puerto Rican secretary of education; John B. King, Jr., appointed to the job by President Barack Obama, is of Black and Puerto Rican descent.

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