Yale professor, New Haven official express optimism about Cardona nomination despite local criticism
Miguel Cardona, former Connecticut commissioner of education, earned support from both sides of the aisle in his Wednesday Senate confirmation hearing to become the next secretary of education.
Cardona, a Connecticut native who grew up in the Yale Acres public housing complex, is widely recognized as someone who has helped close gaps between native English speakers and students learning English as a second language. The former Meriden assistant superintendent has also received national praise for ensuring that every K-12 child in Connecticut has a laptop during the ongoing pandemic. While some have criticized Cardona’s stance on testing and push for school reopening, he has been heralded as a strong choice for secretary of education in New Haven and at Yale.
“As a former classroom teacher, he understands better than most how policy set at the local, state and national level impact student learning,” Board of Education President Yesenia Rivera wrote in an email to the News. “While I’m delighted to see someone of the Latino community be named to that position, Commissioner Cardona is being named to that post because of his long and distinguished career as an educational professional, not simply because he is Latino.”
Rivera added that Cardona has “been a good partner to New Haven.” She hopes that Cardona will work on improving access to high-quality education for all Americans through his work with the Department of Education.
Richard Lemons, an education studies lecturer at Yale, has known Cardona for about 10 years. Lemons said that Cardona has a skillset that makes him uniquely well-suited to handle the political polarization of the time.
“He listens with empathy,” Lemons said. “He listens with passion. … He doesn’t walk into conversations convinced that he has all the answers and that he’s smarter than you.”
Cardona first rose to the post of commissioner a year-and-a-half ago. In this short amount of time, he has already led his district through the difficult situations brought upon by the pandemic. Cardona has had to balance family, faculty and administrative interests. These groups often differ over whether students should return to school, Lemons said.
He added that when Cardona took on the role of commissioner, he immediately put forth the same values he had as a teacher and principal — including a commitment to fighting inequity in the education system.
“From day one, he said in a way that I have not heard from other commissioners: ‘first and foremost we’ve got to solve the problems of inequity in our education system,’” Lemons said. “Historically, we’ve had leaders who talked about the achievement gap, but they didn’t talk about the residue of systemic and historic racism.”
Wednesday’s confirmation hearing revealed that school reopenings will remain one of the central questions he will have to answer during his first months as the secretary of education. Cardona fielded multiple questions from politicians on how he would make decisions on this policy question.
After watching Cardona’s confirmation hearing, Lemons said he anticipates the administration will walk back many of the policies supported by the Trump administration and implemented by former Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos surrounding how Title IX is administered.
For Lemons, one of Cardona’s most compelling assets is his personal story. Cardona learned English as a second language. He is a product of Meriden public schools and became the first member of his family to enroll in college. He graduated from Central Connecticut State University in 1997 and went on to receive a doctorate from the University of Connecticut in 2012. His education, Lemons said, offered him social mobility and eventually brought him into the upper echelons of the U.S. government.
But some in the Elm City are not completely supportive of Cardona’s nomination. The New Haven Public School Advocates recently published a petition that calls on Cardona to cancel federally mandated standardized testing this calendar year and expresses some concerns with the nominee’s record. As of Thursday, the petition has garnered 361 signatures.
“In order to be the transformative leader that our country needs, we believe that you must rectify rather than replicate some of the harmful policies and practices pursued during your tenure [in Connecticut],” reads the NHPSA petition. “This begins with immediately cancelling the 2021 testing mandate upon confirmation.”
The petition argues that Cardona has not been an “active champion for transformation,” noting his defense of a state education budget increase below the rate of inflation, support of standardized testing last spring, and push to reopen Connecticut schools. In an interview with the News, Sarah Miller of the NHPSA reiterated and elaborated upon these criticisms.
Miller explained that many parents and community members were frustrated with Cardona’s push to reopen public schools and argued that his department was not responsive to community concerns about COVID-19 safety.
Cardona could not be reached for comment in time for publication.
At Wednesday’s confirmation hearing, Cardona answered a question about standardized testing from Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C. Burr asked Cardona for his stance on allowing states to skip giving federally mandated standardized tests this spring due to the ongoing pandemic.
“I don’t think I’m in favor of a one-size-fits-all [approach] if the conditions under COVID-19 prevent a student from being in school in person,” Cardona said, as reported by the Washington Post. “I don’t think we need students to come in to test them on a standardized test. I don’t think that makes sense. With that said, if we don’t assess where our students are and their level of performance, it will be difficult for us to provide some targeted support in our resource allocation that can best support the closing of gaps that have been exacerbated.”
In 2003, when Cardona was 27, he became principal of Hanover School, the youngest principal in the state at the time.
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