In August, Connecticut’s schools chief, Miguel A. Cardona, logged on to a virtual meeting of New Haven’s school board, ostensibly to hear why its members had decided not to open the state’s largest school district for in-person classes this fall.
Most of the district’s students had not fully participated in remote learning, he said. Its most vulnerable populations had the most to lose by not returning to school buildings, and the district had met public health metrics for reopening. But although Dr. Cardona later suggested the board reconsider, he declined to overrule it.
“All of you, whether you have a very strong position on one end or the other, are here because you care about the success of children and the community,” he concluded.
That approach, leaning in to reopening while remaining respectful of local control, could soon go national, with President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. announcing the nomination of Dr. Cardona as his education secretary. If confirmed, Dr. Cardona would face the most urgent education crisis in decades, and whether he can press schools to reopen without turning the issue into a partisan matter, as Education Secretary Betsy DeVos did, could have major repercussions for the young Biden administration.
“He is, at his heart, much more of an educator than a politician or an ideologue,” said Dacia Toll, the chief executive of Achievement First, a national network of charter schools that includes several schools in Connecticut. “I think he’s very practical, he’s very focused on what’s best for students, especially the highest-needs students.”
The selection of Dr. Cardona, a Latino, would fulfill Mr. Biden’s campaign promise to appoint a diverse cabinet and a secretary of education with public school experience — a blunt juxtaposition to Ms. DeVos, a billionaire champion of private schools that she and her children attended. Dr. Cardona, whose parents are from Puerto Rico, grew up in public housing and attended public schools throughout his life.
“In Miguel Cardona, America will have an experienced and dedicated public school teacher leading the way at the Department of Education,” Mr. Biden said in a statement announcing his nomination on Tuesday evening, “ensuring that every student is equipped to thrive in the economy of the future, that every educator has the resources they need to do their jobs with dignity and success, and that every school is on track to reopen safely.”
Dr. Cardona would be tasked with bringing the elementary, secondary and higher-education systems back from the pandemic’s disruption and repairing the considerable damage done, a high-stakes process that will most likely require years of work and billions of dollars.
Mr. Biden has also vowed significant elementary and secondary education policy changes, like tripling federal funding for poorer schools, increasing teacher pay and reversing the Trump administration’s civil rights policies. In higher education, he has promised free public college, expanding federal financial aid and canceling some student debt.