The Senate Monday evening voted 64-33 to confirm Miguel Cardona to lead the U.S. Education Department as schools across the country attempt to return to safe, in-person instruction -- something the Biden administration has prioritized as part of its COVID-19 response plan.
Coming into office, President Joe Biden said ensuring students and educators are able to return to the classroom safely was a top priority and included a goal to get a majority of K-8 students back to school in the first 100 days of his presidency.
At his confirmation hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, Cardona reiterated this goal, and said he plans to address "inequities head on."
"I recognize the frustration and distrust and fear that is out there and if confirmed as secretary of education, I'll do everything in my power to make sure that our rollout strategy for reopening schools includes communication on how to safely reopen schools," Cardona told lawmakers last month. Adding that he thinks this includes "increased surveillance testing for our educators and a prioritization of our educators for vaccination."
Cardona also noted during the confirmation hearing that there are "examples throughout our country of schools that are able to reopen safely and do so while following mitigation strategies."
Cardona led Connecticut schools as the state's commissioner of education, but also spent time as an elementary school teacher and school principal, according to the Connecticut Department of Education.
He was also the first Latino to serve as education commissioner in the state and was the youngest principal in the state, the Biden transition team said when announcing his nomination.
"Dr. Cardona has lived experience as a low-income English learner in Connecticut's public school system, and his professional experience as an educator -- as a researcher -- equips him with a critical perspective on the experiences of some of our most marginalized students," said Liz King, the senior director of the Education Equity Program at the The Leadership Conference Education Fund.
His confirmation comes as the Senate begins considering legislation that passed in the House last week providing nearly $130 billion for K-12 schools to reopen.
Some Republicans members of Congress have been vocal about their opposition to such a large sum for schools following two previous relief packages. When Cardona was asked about this at the hearing, he said that though he is not involved in the policy development, from the perspective of education commissioner, the previous funding "really helped us keep the lights on," and said the funding being considered is "to make sure we recover."
"So much change has happened, we're going to need more counselors in our schools," Cardona told the committee.
"We're going to need to make sure we have summer programming. We're going to need to make sure we have extended day. If we really want to recover, we really need to invest now or we're going to pay later. And I feel that the funds that are being discussed now are really to help us with a long-term recovery process, preventing layoffs, when we need more teachers, not less," he said.
Following his confirmation, National Education Association President Becky Pringle, said in a statement the group was looking forward to working with Cardona.
"From the coronavirus pandemic and ensuing economic crisis to the systemic racism that has held back too many students for too long -- there are compounding challenges that are facing students, educators, families and communities. We must ensure that educators and schools have the tools and resources they need to effectively and authentically diagnose our students’ academic, social and emotional needs, and support their growth, development and success," she said.
Senate HELP Committee Ranking Member Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican, said in a statement that he was "glad to be able to support" Cardona.
“School closures across the nation have left many students stuck at home, disconnected from their peers and struggling under significant learning loss,” Burr said in a statement. “Dr. Cardona has committed to following the science and has agreed to prioritize bringing students back to the classroom quickly and safely. Dr. Cardona brings with him the background, qualifications and temperament needed to serve in this position at a very challenging time. I’m glad to be able to support his nomination today, and I look forward to working with him on these important initiatives.”