Do education reformers have a new friend in Washington?


MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: education policy.

President-elect Joe Biden plans to reverse many of the Trump administration’s initiatives. He’s promised student debt forgiveness, tuition cuts, and changes to the way colleges handle sex assault reports. Biden also opposes private school vouchers, and he reportedly considered union leaders for education secretary. That signals hostility toward school choice.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: But Biden nominated Miguel Cardona, a teacher from Connecticut. Cardona is a bit of an unknown; still, the nomination gives school choice advocates some hope.

WORLD’s Esther Eaton reports.

ESTHER EATON, REPORTER: Miguel Cardona was born to Puerto Rican parents living in Connecticut public housing. He began kindergarten speaking only Spanish, later attended a technical high school for automotive studies, and was the first person in his family to graduate from college. He moved from fourth grade teacher, to principal, to education commissioner of Connecticut before Biden tapped him for the nation’s top education post. 

Cardona highlighted his past during his nomination acceptance speech.

CARDONA: I, being bilingual and bicultural, am as American as apple pie and rice and beans. 

Although not well-known on the national stage, Cardona got a much warmer welcome from public school advocates than his predecessor did.

Outgoing Education Secretary Betsy DeVos came into the role as a true outsider. She was a well-known advocate for school choice and an outspoken critic of the public education establishment. During her four years in the Trump administration, DeVos focused on free speech and rolled back Obama-era affirmative action policies. She also strongly supported private schools. That earned her the ire of teacher’s unions, even as school choice supporters cheered her on. 

Jamison Coppola is with the American Association of Christian Schools.

COPPOLA: We have a very, I think, a charitable perspective on her tenure. I know, not all of our colleagues do. But I think she was a diligent, dedicated public servant.

Coppola says it’s hard to predict how much of DeVos’s work the Biden administration will undo.

COPPOLA: We’re in a time period where there’s such a stark difference between administrations that, you know, we’re starting to see almost a ping pong element to regulations being written then removed and rewritten. And so how much of the changes that were made during her time at Ed remain? I wouldn’t even know how to game plan that.

Cardona has a history of working to improve academic outcomes for minority and low-income students. He supports universal preschool and wrote his doctoral thesis on helping English language learners. As an assistant superintendent, he took new teachers on tours of students’ neighborhoods to help them understand economic and racial differences. 

But in his acceptance speech, he called out widespread failure in public education.

CARDONA: For me, education was the great equalizer, but for too many students, your zip code and your skin color remain the best predictor of the opportunities you’ll have in your lifetime. For far too long we have allowed students to graduate from high school without any idea of how to meaningfully engage in the workforce while good paying, high skilled technical and trade jobs go unfilled.

Charter school advocates hope Cardona will give their education model a chance. Nina Rees is with the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

REES: We have, you know, a lot of charter schools that have demonstrated that not only can you close the achievement gap, but you can graduate students, send them to college, and graduate them from four year colleges. So to turn a blind eye to that success, at a time when we need to figure out ways to ensure more students, especially students from low income backgrounds, are getting an access to the American dream, would be a mistake.

During his time as Connecticut’s education commissioner, Cardona approved every charter up for renewal. He placed three charter schools on probation for failing to improve their discipline records, but told them he wanted to support them as public schools. 

Since he’s mostly worked with traditional public schools, Rees isn’t sure what to expect.

REES: We don’t know him very well. But based on the feedback that we’ve received from our friends and allies in Connecticut, it sounds like he’s a straight shooter, that he is sincere and committed to excellence in equity. Our hope is that the next administration treats charter schools as the public schools that they are.

One of Cardona’s first challenges will be persuading schools to reopen. Biden wants most classrooms closed during the pandemic to welcome students back during his first 100 days in office.

And Cardona does have some experience with that. He helped facilitate remote learning in Connecticut early in the pandemic. And he allowed each district to make its own decision about when to reopen in person. 

But he did urge districts to reopen. He used federal aid to buy masks, plexiglass, and other safety equipment. And he emphasized data suggesting the coronavirus wasn’t spreading through Connecticut schools. In December, about one-third of the state’s public school students had the option to return to class.

Nina Rees says that’s a good sign for how he’ll approach school reopening nationwide.

REES: We’re encouraged by the fact that he was able to open the schools in Connecticut. So first order of business is going to be opening schools and opening them safely, so the fact that he has some experience in that respect is encouraging to us.

That might put him at odds with teachers’ unions. They’ve praised his nomination, but have been critical of efforts to reopen classrooms in some places. Jamison Coppola with the American Association of Christian Schools says educators outside the traditional public system are cautiously optimistic.

COPPOLA: He doesn’t seem to be hostile towards some school choice. Now, whether he’ll work to advance that, that remains to be seen.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Esther Eaton.


(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File) In this Dec. 23, 2020, file photo President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee for Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona speaks at The Queen Theater in Wilmington, Del. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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