Education Secretary Miguel Cardona came to the Monitor Breakfast on Sept. 13 bearing “gifts,” as he put it: a stack of thick, glossy booklets entitled “Raise the Bar,” touting his department’s goals. He was fresh off a back-to-school bus tour in the American heartland and, he says, feeling “more optimistic than usual.”
Dr. Cardona spoke of how gratifying it was to put faces to policies, “whether that’s early childhood programming in Illinois or after-school programming in Minnesota. It’s good to see students engaged.”
Still, he hastened to add, these are challenging times for education, be it K-12 schools’ continuing efforts to recover from pandemic “learning loss,” teacher shortages, or the Department of Education’s new plan for student debt relief after the Supreme Court struck down the previous program. In June, the high court also ended affirmative action – race-conscious admissions – at colleges and universities, a topic that’s clearly near to Dr. Cardona’s heart. He was born in Meriden, Connecticut, to Puerto Rican parents, and English is his second language. He was the first in his family to attend college.
“Higher education changed the trajectory of my life and my children’s life,” says Dr. Cardona, the father of a college sophomore and high school senior.
Now the secretary is going after “legacy admissions” – the practice of preferring students with alumni or donor connections, which the Monitor has covered. In July, his department launched a civil rights investigation into Harvard University’s admissions practices.
Dr. Cardona insists he has no bias against elite universities – their presidents “understand what we’re trying to do” – despite his decidedly nonelite background. After attending a technical high school, he spent four years fixing cars and then enrolled at Central Connecticut State University.
“I knew I couldn’t fail because my parents sacrificed too damn much for me to have a chance to go to college,” Dr. Cardona says.
Today, he speaks of visiting schools that help “homeless kids, students who live in a car, get their degree. I want to lift that up.”
I’m delighted that the Monitor’s two education reporters – Jackie Valley, who lives in Nevada, and Ira Porter, who lives in Delaware – were able to come to Washington for the breakfast. Jackie’s coverage can be found here: Education secretary: America’s higher education system is ‘broken.’ And the audio of the session can be found here.