By CHRIS POWELL
Many in Connecticut, including most of its news organizations, are gushing about President-elect Joe Biden's choice of state Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona, a Meriden native, to be secretary of the U.S. Education Department. News reports say the president-elect picked Cardona in large part because of the support he and Governor Lamont have given to keeping schools open amid the virus epidemic.
This gush couldn't be sillier.
For most schools in the state are not really open but operating entirely with internet classes or alternating erratically between in-person classes and internet classes. Since March when the governor began exercising emergency power to rule by decree during the epidemic, he has dictated to businesses, restaurants, and even churches, but he has only urged schools to stay open, declining to order them to do so, lest he offend the teacher unions, the most feared special interest. His position and the commissioner's in favor of keeping schools open has been only a pose, though those gushing about Cardona misrepresent it as policy.
Having been commissioner for less than a year and a half, Cardona can't be blamed for not having changed much about Connecticut's schools. But then he can't be credited with much either. The embarrassing gap between the performance of white and minority students, which has caused years of hand-wringing, has not diminished during Cardona's tenure, nor has student performance improved generally. Nor has there been any candid acknowledgment from anyone in authority that school performance is not at all a matter of school financing but mostly a matter of parenting and that the state's main education policy is only social promotion, which cripples education.
Able as Cardona may be, having been a teacher, principal, and assistant superintendent, he has not made Connecticut's schools any more of an example and has no national reputation.
So why his selection by the president-elect? It is because of his heartening personal story and, more so, his Puerto Rican ancestry. The Democratic Party is obsessed with racial, ethnic, and gender balance, the president-elect has been told that he must have a Hispanic in his Cabinet, and choosing Cardona mobilizes political correctness against support for putting a national teachers union leader in the education secretary's office. Choosing Cardona also avoids having to choose between the leaders of the two largest unions.
Indeed, not being a teachers union leader may be the highest qualification that can be expected from an education secretary appointed by a Democratic president. Besides, Connecticut should know better by now than to expect much from ethnic firsts in high positions in government.
Until the 1980s the state's political parties put much effort into balancing their state tickets by ethnicity, often splitting the gubernatorial nominations between Irish and Italians, assigning to Poles the nominations for the old congressman-at-large seat, and reserving treasurer nominations for Blacks and secretary of the state nominations for women. There was often room somewhere for a Jew, and political anti-Semitism was extinguished with Abraham Ribicoff's narrow election as governor in 1954. A woman easily made it to the top when Ella Grasso was elected governor 20 years later.
But ethnicity in politics doesn't resonate much in Connecticut anymore, perhaps because the state has grown up a bit politically and because, while the rise of someone from a disadvantaged group is always encouraging, it has happened often enough for people to realize that, if just given a chance in power, the disadvantaged can disappoint as much as anyone else and that no matter who wins, taxes go up but student test scores don't.
Education in the United States is almost entirely local and the federal education secretary has little authority over it. Mostly he can distribute federal money, highlight what he considers improvements, and make noise.
President Trump's education secretary, Betsy DeVos, has not been very expert but at least knows that teacher unions serve teachers, not students. If Cardona even hints at such understanding, his ethnicity won't save him or the president from the fury of the unions, which already may be resentful that they aren't getting all the patronage they expected.
Chris Powell is a columnist for the Journal Inquirer in Manchester.