President-elect Joe Biden recently nominated Miguel Cardona to serve as the next U.S. Secretary of Education. Hardly anyone in education circles has heard of or spoken about Cardona, let alone in an open and serious way. For weeks there was endless speculation and confusion surrounding the “top potential pick” for this position. All kinds of illusions, diversions, and false hopes predictably came to the fore. As in previous elections, emotions ran high while analysis, theory, and experience took a back seat.
The notion, according to many, that Cardona is a “non-controversial,” “non-party-splitting,” “unifying choice” is meant to intensify opposition to analysis, theory, and experience. The idea that Cardona is a “middle-of-the-road” kind of guy is designed to cover up harsh splits, profoundly different visions of education, and worsening class divisions in society. Objectively, a capital-centered agenda cannot be reconciled with a human-centered agenda; they are based on diametrically-opposed aims and visions.
Then there is the widely-held notion that public education can only benefit from a person at the helm who has experience in public education. Many insisted that the next U.S. Secretary of Education must have “real public school experience.” This demand is usually made spontaneously and uncritically, as if nothing dreadful or harmful could possibly happen in public schools so long as someone from public education is leading American education. It is a textbook case of mixing up personal will and class will. It also feeds off the “anyone-but-DeVos” frenzy. Is it safe to blindly assume that public education students and teachers will automatically be served well if the Education Department is managed by someone who has public education classroom experience? Is there any guarantee of that? Public education has suffered relentless attacks for generations regardless of who has been in charge of the Education Department. These assaults are the result of historic political-economic dynamics and forces larger than this or that individual. This is why school privatization, high-stakes standardized testing, and other antisocial policies in education will not come to an end just because a person with public education classroom experience leads the Education Department.
Cardona is Connecticut’s first Latino commissioner of education, and he served in this role very briefly. Cardona himself started as an English Language Learner when he was a student. Over the years Cardona has been a teacher, a principal, and assistant superintendent in the public school system. His children attended public schools as well.
Many are using words such as “equity,” “diversity,” and “opportunity” to describe Cardona’s vision of education. Many also claim that Cardona is concerned about the 150-year old “achievement gap.”
Not surprisingly, in addition to being comfortable with neoliberal “accountability” and punitive high-stakes standardized tests produced by big corporations, Cardona also appears to be comfortable with privately-operated charter schools that siphon billions of dollars a year from public schools. Many have noted that he is not opposed to charter schools, which is really another way of saying that he supports charter schools. Not being opposed to charter schools is always music to the ears of charter school promoters. Thus, it is not surprising to hear many leading promoters of privately-operated charter schools express their support for Cardona; they do not seem to be too upset or bothered by Cardona’s nomination. The fact that charter schools reject teachers unions and that Cardona was not the “teachers union pick” favored by many “progressives” and democrats, is just one of the main sources of relief for school privatizers.
For her part, Nina Rees, president and CEO of the billionaire-backed National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, congratulated Cardona on “his historic nomination for U.S. Secretary of Education.” She went on to say that:
We call upon him to place students and families first and to be agnostic about PreK-12 instructional delivery and governance models, so long as they are effective and meet the needs of all students. The Secretary must be committed to supporting the entire public-school ecosystem—both district and charter (emphasis added).
In plain English this means: Cardona should maintain his support for charter schools and remain committed to never asking any serious questions about the core nature of privately-operated charter schools or look at their poor track record. Cardona should be narrowly focused on “results” and support any “education delivery model” (public or private) that produces “results.” He should not oppose school privatization so long as it delivers good “results.” Deploying more neoliberal education discourse, Rees said:
We look forward to working with Secretary Cardona and his team to ensure the voices of parents are heard…. Black and Latino parents overwhelmingly support charter schools, and we expect Cardona’s commitment to educational equity will include protecting their ability to access these [charter] schools.
For its part, the Center for Education Reform, perhaps the most aggressive supporter of charter schools and school privatization in the U.S., had this glowing statement about Cardona:
President-Elect Joe Biden’s choice of Connecticut Commissioner of Education, Miguel Cardona, is good news for the millions of parents and students whose fates have been so derailed by the Coronavirus this year. Had Biden picked a union leader or equivalent, it would have been akin to an act of war on the progress of the last three decades of pushing power to parents, and on those who have fought to get their kids educated this year, whether back in traditional schools or by their own hand (emphasis added).
The remaining 4-5 paragraphs of the CER statement drip with exuberant support for Cardona.
Long-time charter school supporter Andrew Rotherham also chimed in and had this to say about Cardona:
He’s a Goldilocks on charter schools — not too hot or cold. He didn’t champion opening new ones, but renewed existing ones while he was commissioner. Charter leaders have nice things to say about him even as he states that his focus is district-run schools (emphasis added).
Clearly, promoters of school privatization are not too unhappy with Cardona, and they have no reason to believe that test-obsessed segregated charter schools will stop multiplying and siphoning billions of dollars from public schools under Cardona.
Focusing on individuals and the personalities and careers of individuals will not open the path of progress to society. The pressure to not investigate and analyze, to avoid and reject theory, will ensure that progress remains a casualty in the U.S. An entirely new conscience, outlook, and agenda is needed to avoid the endless downward spiral education finds itself in. Instead of solving anything, school privatization has only intensified problems.
This post was originally published on Radio Free.