Thousands of educators have been anxiously waiting to see who President-elect Joe Biden would nominate for U.S. Secretary of Education. He has chosen Miquel Cordona, who heads public schools in Connecticut.
He will replace Betsy DeVos who was generally looked at with disdain by public school supporters because of her opposition to public schools. While DeVos had no background in public education, Cordona has experience as teacher, principal and administrator in public schools. Biden said he wanted someone with public school experience in the role.
During his confirmation hearing before the legislature in February in the selection process for the top state job, Cardona described himself as a “goofy, little Puerto Rican kid” born in the Yale Acres public housing complex in Meriden.
“The passion I have for public education stems from my belief that it is the best lever for economic success and prosperity in Connecticut,” he told lawmakers. “And the belief that public education is still the great equalizer. It was for me.”
Cardona’s father is a retired Meriden police officer and his brother is currently a detective in the department.
After attending public schools in Meriden, Cardona graduated from the state-run Wilcox Technical High School in the city before attending Central Connecticut State University for his bachelor’s degree and earning his master’s, doctorate and superintendent certification at UConn.
“I hold five degrees or certificates from Connecticut universities and I’m a true product of the system I hope to lead,” he told lawmakers at his confirmation hearing.
The 45-year-old and his wife, Marissa Pérez Cardona, have two children who attend Meriden public schools.
Cardona was just 28 when he became principal of Hanover Elementary School in Meriden in 2003. He was the youngest person in the state to hold that job.
“I recognized him as a young teacher with a tremendous amount of talent and I persuaded him to apply for an instructional associate position so he would get some first-hand experience,” Elizabeth M. Ruocco, who Cardona replaced as principal, told the Record-Journal newspaper at the time. “He just is one of the most talented young people I have seen and I know he will do a great job.”
Cardona remained with Meriden Public Schools and eventually shifted to a central office position, first to lead performance and evaluation work in the district and then, in 2013, becoming an assistant superintendent for teaching and learning.
Cardona was one of several finalists for Connecticut’s top education job when Lamont ultimately selected him in August 2019. He was the state’s first Latino education commissioner.
“For more than two decades, Dr. Cardona has dedicated his career to the students of Meriden, where he was himself born, raised, and educated,” Lamont said at the time. “He firmly understands the challenges many of our urban areas face. I look forward to working with him over the coming years so we can fix some of these inequities and collaborate with educators, parents, and community leaders on providing the best outcomes for our schools and our children.”
After being on the job for less than a year Cardona was faced with the challenge of overseeing the state’s schools amid an unprecedented pandemic. While schools were shut down as the coronavirus took hold on Connecticut in March, Cardona and other administrators spent the summer planning for how they could safely reopen.
He and Governor Ned Lamont argued that there were numerous social and emotional benefits to in-person schooling that couldn’t be replicated by virtual classes. They were also concerned about tens of thousands of students who didn’t log on at all when schools were forced to shift to remote learning in the spring.
While the state has left decisions about school reopenings up to individual districts, Cardona and Lamont have urged against long-term closures over coronavirus concerns, saying there is little evidence of virus transmission occurring within schools.
“In-person education is too important for our children to disrupt their education further, unless and until local conditions specifically dictate the need to do so,” Cardona and acting Department of Health Commissioner Deidre Gifford wrote in a letter to school superintendents last month.