ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Today we learned that President-elect Joe Biden plans to nominate Miguel Cardona to lead the Department of Education. He is currently head of Connecticut's public schools. And if confirmed, Cardona will have a lot on his plate, including the task of reopening schools and the question of whether to cancel student loan debt. For more on this, we're joined by NPR education reporter Elissa Nadworny.
ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.
SHAPIRO: So I mentioned that Miguel Cardona is the education commissioner in Connecticut. Tell us more about him and how he got there.
NADWORNY: Cardona got his start as an elementary school teacher in Meriden, Conn. And this was a big promise that Joe Biden made on the campaign trail - that he would pick an education secretary that was a teacher. After teaching, Cardona then spent 10 years as a principal in Meriden. He actually won the state principal of the year award in 2012. He then went on to become the assistant superintendent in the district, which is just south of Hartford and serves about 9,000 students. And since 2019, he's been the top education leader in the state of Connecticut. Meriden is actually the same district where he grew up and attended public schools. He was born there. He lived in public housing. His parents are from Puerto Rico, and he would be the third Latino candidate Biden puts forward for a cabinet post.
SHAPIRO: Now, if he's confirmed, he'll replace Betsy DeVos, who's been one of the most controversial cabinet members of the Trump administration, a strong proponent of school choice who advocates for private and religious schools. How would a Cardona Department of Education look different?
NADWORNY: That's right. And he is certainly a rebuke to all that. He is the product of public schools. That's where he's worked his entire career. His focus points have been making schools more equitable, closing achievement gaps between students of color and their white peers, improving learning for English-language learners. He himself spoke only Spanish when he started kindergarten. His experience is in K-12. So for many, what he'll do on higher education issues is still a big question mark.
SHAPIRO: Now, President-elect Biden has emphasized that he wants to reopen schools within his first 100 days. And Cardona has been managing that at the state level in Connecticut. What does it look like there?
NADWORNY: Yes, so a big Biden priority is getting schools open. And Cardona has spent the last several months threading the needle on trying to reopen schools amid the pandemic. About a third of students in Connecticut are able to go to school in person full-time. Here he is talking to the CT Mayor (ph) newspaper in August about this.
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MIGUEL CARDONA: Yes, we're in a health pandemic, but this is also an education emergency that - we have to accelerate our efforts because COVID accelerated disparities.
NADWORNY: Opening schools is going to be a major challenge for the Biden administration. I mean, it's a tough balance. Teachers unions have lobbied for teacher protections and opposed some reopening plans. Schools need more money to open properly and be socially distanced. And, of course, community spread in many places is out of control.
SHAPIRO: That's a lot to deal with. And yet there is more on his to-do list if confirmed. Tell us about what else he's got on the agenda.
NADWORNY: Other issues are student loans. You know, federal loans are currently on pause through January 31. Will that relief be extended? Will some loans be canceled? There's also the issue of reversing several education policy changes made during the current administration, including guidance on transgender students, school segregation and Title IX, which governs how colleges handle sexual assault and harassment complaints.
SHAPIRO: Just briefly, what's the reaction been?
NADWORNY: National teachers union said they support this. Even a top school-choice group called this good news. For higher-ed folks, you know, he doesn't have much of a track record, but they're optimistic. It's a lot of wait and see.
SHAPIRO: NPR's Elissa Nadworny, thank you.
NADWORNY: Thank you, Ari.
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