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Meet the new boss

Does Biden’s education secretary pick indicate a new phase of education reform policy?

Eric Maroney and Jay Poppa provide a background to Biden’s nominee for Education Secretary, Miguel Cardona, and insight into what education activists might expect over his administration.

President-elect Joe Biden announced his selection of Connecticut Commissioner of Education Miguel Cardona as his nominee for United States secretary of education last month. Both the educators’ unions and the business press congratulated Biden and Cardona within hours of the announcement. Many have celebrated the selection of an educator with classroom experience as a welcome contrast to the outgoing secretary of education, billionaire Betsy DeVos. The selection seems to signal a departure not only from the bigotry of DeVos but also some of the neoliberal schemes pushed by President Obama’s secretary of education, Arne Duncan.

If Cardona is confirmed, will educators and education advocates finally get the real alternative that we have been asking for? A closer examination of his history underscores that question.

Big Tech

Unlike his predecessors DeVos and Duncan, who emphasized charter schools and standardized testing, Cardona’s focus has been on education technology. During his 2015-2019 tenure as assistant superintendent of Meriden Public Schools, the small urban school district in New Haven County, Connecticut embraced a variety of education technology including Imagine Learning and the RISE dashboard.

Imagine Learning, an online language and literacy acquisition program, uses tablets and laptops to deliver instruction. There is little consensus about the efficacy of such online language programs. Many argue that too often these programs replace teacher instruction rather than augment it. In a phone interview with the authors, former Meriden Public Schools teacher Jackie Edwards described how she “witnessed the systematic pushing of educational technology into the classroom.” Edwards said:

[The new tech programs] were made to replace engaging in hands on and developmentally appropriate learning. The decision making process of what students were expected to do in the classroom during independent learning time was taken out of the hands of the teacher and put into the hands of the administrators.

While technology has a place in the classroom, this application of it increased managerial control of curriculum and automation of instruction—developments that facilitate increased classroom surveillance and the deskilling of the education workforce.

RISE dashboards, the other major education technology program in Meriden Public Schools, were developed by Connecticut RISE—a project funded by the billionaire hedge fund manager Ray Dalio. The dashboards collect and centralize detailed attendance, behavioral, and academic data on individual students. RISE Director Emily Pallin says the data can be used to provide strategic interventions before students fall behind their peers. The program operates in several urban districts throughout Connecticut, but teachers and parent groups have raised concerns about student privacy and data mining. New Haven Public School Advocates (NHPSA), a community based education advocacy group, has been critical of Connecticut RISE instruction protocols, fundraising practices, and limited oversight. NHPSA posted a statement on their Facebook page opposing the expansion of Connecticut RISE:

Students served by the New Haven Public Schools deserve the same data privacy provided by public school systems in more affluent, suburban communities. NHPS’ partnership with CT RISE could make New Haven a “proving ground” for corporate experimentation with student data. It increases the use of surveillance technologies in communities of color, with data profiles possibly following students beyond their immediate school site and foreclosing future opportunities.

That Cardona’s leadership of Meriden Public Schools coincides with implementation of Imagine Learning and the RISE dashboards is an indication that as secretary of education he may again make technology a cornerstone of his policies.This emphasis is in harmony with Biden’s call for an internationally competitive tech workforce as part of his plan for the restoration of U.S. imperial power.

Venture philanthropy

Cardona has emphasized public-private partnerships as a vehicle to achieve education reforms. Indeed, much of his ascension to statewide leadership in Connecticut appears entwined with his relationships to venture philanthropists—wealthy individuals who use their money to influence education policy outside the reach of public oversight. While these philanthropists present themselves as progressive alternatives to the top-down education reformers of the recent past, their practices circumvent public input, allowing investors to set education policies that benefit their business models.

Cardona was selected as Connecticut Commissioner of Education in a process some described as controversial. He was offered the appointment in summer 2019 after the state reversed its initial offer to a candidate with more than double his experience.  One spokesperson involved in the appointment process said,  “This process lacked integrity—and now it lacks candor … the governor and his advisers caved in to external pressure. It’s as simple as that.” Where that pressure came from was not stated; however, Cardona’s history with Dalio Philanthropies may have influenced Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont. Cardona denies that any relationship with Dalio Philanthropies influenced his appointment. However, given the yearslong relationship between Meriden Public Schools and Dalio Philanthropies, which includes an annual coat drive and the RISE Network, it is likely Cardona has some involvement with the Dalios or their representatives.

Coinciding with Cardona’s appointment to statewide leadership, Dalio Philanthropies launched Partnership for Connecticut. The project became the largest public-private investment in Connecticut history—the Dalios contributed $100 million to state education programs. That initial $100 million provided by the Dalios was to be matched by an additional $100 million in tax revenue from the state government and another $100 million raised from other private donors. Partnership for Connecticut would fund education programs developed by Dalio Philanthropies, various state officials, and other private interests in private meetings ungoverned by freedom of information laws.

Aware of negative perceptions of large private investments in public education, the Partnership for Connecticut was branded as an effort to bring community members together to direct the allocation of the public and private monies. Even the statewide education unions, the Connecticut Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers Connecticut, endorsed the partnership and became willing participants on its board.

Connecticut State Commissioner of Education Miguel Cardona demonstrating virtual reality headsets in high schools


However, the Partnership for Connecticut collapsed in less than one year due to criticism of its avoidance of state laws regarding ethics and freedom of information. Mary Anne Schmitt-Carey, the former Partnership for Connecticut CEO made it clear in the aftermath of the collapse that Ray Dalio himself had contributed to the turmoil inside the group. Schmitt-Carey said, “At the first sign that I might not just blindly do what I was told to do, it seems that a decision was made to target me for elimination by any means necessary.” Schmitt-Carey explained that “Dalio emphasized that he was interested in ‘McDonald’s’ not a customized approach, in contrast to his wife’s stated public commitment to listen and be responsive to community leaders insights and expertise.”

Ultimately, Partnership for Connecticut used some money to buy laptops for students to use during the pandemic. While providing devices and internet connections to underserved communities is a precondition for equitable distance learning, both Dalio’s and Cardona’s emphasis on educational technology predates pandemic distance learning.

Higher education

As commissioner of education Cardona’s role focused on K-12 education, so his positions on higher education are relatively unknown. Nevertheless, Cardona has worked closely with Connecticut higher education leaders and he sits on the Board of Regents for Higher Education as an ex-officio member. Connecticut State Colleges and Universities President Mark Ojakian has said, “[Cardona] understands the value of higher education and what needs to happen to make higher education more accessible.” This praise comes from the same administrative leadership that is presently undertaking the largest higher education restructuring project to date. Ojakian and the Board of Regents have sought to merge all twelve Connecticut Community Colleges into a single accredited institution—adding layers of bureaucracy, superseding curricular oversight of faculty, and costing the state millions of dollars. The plan has faced critical opposition from unions, faculty senates, and the regional accreditation body. Although Cardona has no direct role in the contentious merger, his position on the board and relationship with higher education managers in Connecticut may provide some insight about the politics he will bring to Washington.

While the issues of mergers and restructuring have become more commonplace in public higher education after decades of state and federal disinvestment, Cardona’s position on student loan debt is likely more pressing to many. Unfortunately, there is nothing to suggest Cardona will advocate for a broad student loan forgiveness policy when Biden himself has already walked back the promise.

One positive prediction that can be made is that Cardona’s liberal politics will be a repudiation of the open bigotry of DeVos. He is likely to reverse her exclusionary policies affecting trans students, women, and girls. He will also likely make inroads for undocumented students although transformative access for this group will require a serious reversal of the immigration policies that characterized both the Trump and the Obama administrations.

School reopening

Perhaps the biggest test Cardona will face as education secretary is that of school reopening. Biden’s selection of Cardona is congruent with the president-elect’s “ambitious but doable” promise to “safely reopen a majority of schools” within his first 100 days in office. In Connecticut, Cardona punted the task of reopening to local boards of education which, in turn, meant little standardization of health and safety measures. Under Cardona’s leadership, Connecticut has provided little to no extra funding for reopenings and little to no guidance for in-person instruction resulting in an exacerbation of the inequities that existed prior to the pandemic. Like elsewhere in the country, the decision to return to in-person school has been primarily based on the needs of business to free up its workforce from domestic care. The result has been a partial or complete return to in-person learning in every district across the state except New Haven where educators and families organized opposition to the plan.

Cardona has argued that without in-person instruction students, particularly those from underserved districts, will fall behind. And yet, he has supported suspension of teacher credentialing requirements allowing the state to hire anyone over the age of 18 to substitute teach in response to a teacher shortage brought on by the pandemic. In addition, the state has expanded licensing which allows districts to employ uncertified teachers to fill vacant positions. While COVID-19 certainly provides unique challenges to education leaders, these policies contradict Cardona’s claim that in-person instruction is currently essential to mitigating inequality. Placing unqualified or underprepared instructors in classrooms will do little to improve education quality, but it will undermine the standards of the field and weaken educator job protections.

As a second surge ripples through the U.S., the school reopening debate is once again heating up. Militant educators in Chicago and Arizona have begun to organize resistance to efforts to return to in-person learning amidst unsafe pandemic conditions. Likewise in California and elsewhere, labor unions have insisted that decreased local transmission be achieved prior to reopenings.

Cardona will likely vacillate between allowing state governments to determine their individual return plans and amplifying Biden’s push to reopen. His rhetoric about the necessity of in-person learning to mitigate inequality will provide cover to Biden’s reckless push to reopen schools before COVID-19 is adequately contained.

Labor Management Partnerships

The Biden transition team has chosen a figure who will attempt to satisfy many competing visions inside the Democratic Party. Decades of rank and file organizing and struggles have challenged the business-led education reform agenda that characterized the Bush and Obama eras. Those administrations were distinguished by an embrace of charter schools, high stakes testing, and teacher accountability. Their reform model produced school closures, invasive data-driven teacher evaluations, and a narrowed curriculum. They were succeeded by Trump and Devos’ naked acceleration of privatization and abandonment of student protections—particularly for women and girls, LGBTQ students, and undocumented students. Biden and his team seem to understand that these previous versions of education reform are no longer palatable, and yet the need for a public education system responsive to business interests remains.

For their part the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA) have been enthusiastic about Cardona at both the state and national levels. Randi Weingarten, national president of the AFT and longtime Democratic Party surrogate, wrote, “From day one, educators will have a trusted partner in Dr. Cardona, and I couldn’t be more excited to get started.” Connecticut AFT President Jan Hochandel, offered “When he was first appointed as Connecticut’s education commissioner, Dr. Cardona outlined an overall vision of ‘reimagining’ education here in Connecticut.” If these warm receptions are indication of union leaders’ willingness to partner with Cardona, educators and their allies will need to continue independently organizing to advance a liberatory vision for the future of our schools.

Moreover, if the selection of Cardona does lead to greater use of educational technology, unions will need to respond with clarity about how it will be developed, who will control it, and to what extent it can substitute for person to person learning.

Public education does not exist outside the struggle of class forces. The ruling class recognizes its need to cultivate a workforce, but resists the taxation needed to adequately fund it. Instead, the wealthy provide targeted investments in public education, advocating for reform policies that meet their business needs. This is why Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and the Connecticut based Dalios underwrite philanthropic education foundations.

In order to remain domestically and internationally competitive the ruling class must shape the future workforce, and yet they seek to do so on the cheap. This tension has produced decades of education policy that attempts to restructure both the substance and the form of public education from kindergarten to colleges and universities. In addition, these reforms seek to discipline one of the last large battalions of organized labor—public school teachers. Because both the Democrats and the Republicans are beholden to these wealthy interests, their education policies and appointments have pursued similar ends.

Likewise, the dominance of business unionism means the AFT and the NEA have long embraced a collaborative relationship with business interests as well. Cardona’s appointment may put a progressive veneer on this reality, but the underlying relationship remains. Public education is not yet the vehicle for human potential educators dream it to be. Achieving that dream means challenging the conservative model of business unionism in order to advance demands to tax the rich and increase educator, student, and community control. Ultimately, education should not be designed for labor markets but serve as a function for developing human interest and potential.

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Eric Maroney & Jay Poppa View All

Eric W. Maroney teaches English at Gateway Community College in New Haven, CT. He is a member of the Tempest Collective.

Jay Poppa is a member of the DSA, a union and community activist, and a veteran elementary school teacher in Connecticut.