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A Union Leader for Education Secretary? Yes!

NEA and AFT Presidents are front-runners to take bewildered Department

Kris LaGrange's picture
Nov 16, 2020

Last week, UCOMM profiled the people who are being considered for the Labor Secretary position. Included in that list were labor leaders, elected officials and longtime government officials who had served in both the federal Labor Department as well as state Labor Departments.

The Labor Department isn’t the only place where a union leader could take over. At the Department of Education, two of the most important education union officials in the country are being considered to take over for Betsy DeVos, who has been in the position since 2017. DeVos, who had no education background before taking over, was hated by teachers and their unions for her lack of experience, her push to privatize public education, and her moves to make it easier for student loan companies to take advantage of students.

At a forum with the National Education Association (NEA) in 2019, Biden made the following pledge, "First thing, as president of United States -- not a joke -- first thing I will do is make sure that the secretary of education is not Betsy DeVos, it is a teacher. A teacher. Promise."

With that in mind here are the people who are believed to be in consideration for the position.

Lily Eskelsen Garcia- the former President of the NEA, she is the immediate past President of the union having not run for reelection after serving two terms in office. She was first elected in 2014 and was the first Latina to head the 3-million-member union. Eskelsen-Garcia started out as a lunch lady, before becoming an aide to a special education teacher. She then went on to get a teaching degree from the University of Utah and got her first teaching position in 1980 teaching fifth and sixth graders. In 1989 she was named Utah Teacher of the Year. In 1990 she was elected Utah Education Association President a position she held until 1996. According to Politico, Eskelsen Garcia is considered the favorite to be nominated, due to her experience in the classroom and as the President of the largest union in the country.

Randi Weingarten- the President of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), Weingarten is a powerful and outspoken voice on education issues and political issues. Weingarten would bring a unique skill set to the position. In addition to being a union President, she also has a law degree and spent six years working as a teacher at Clara Barton High School in Crown Heights Brooklyn. As a teacher she taught Law, Ethical Issues in Medicine, AP Political Science, and US History and Government. In 1997, Weingarten was elected Treasurer of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), the union that represents teachers in the New York City public school system. In 1998 she was appointed President of the Union, a position she held until 2009 when she was elected President of the AFT. Weingarten could spark opposition from Republicans as she is a big figure within the Democratic Party and was active on the campaign trail in support of Biden. She is also more activist and “radical” than Eskelsen Garcia which could cost her some votes among moderate Republicans.

Linda Darling-Hammond- currently the head of the California Board of Education and the President and CEO of the Learning Policy Institute. She led President Barack Obama’s education policy transition team in 2008 and was considered for the position in 2009. She began her career as a public-school teacher and has worked as a consultant for numerous federal, state, and local officials on education policy and practices. In 2006 she was named one of the ten most influential people affecting education policy. She has also worked as a Professor of Education at Stanford. She is currently heading up the Education transition team and in a recent comment, seemed to indicate that she would prefer to stay in California rather then taking over the Education Department.

Alma Adams- currently a Democratic Congresswomen from North Carolina, Adams is being pushed by Lodriguez Murray, the United Negro College Fund’s vice president of public policy and government affairs. In an interview with Inside Higher Ed, Murray said Adams was instrumental in pushing for federal funding for HBCUs. Adams has a PHD in Art Education/Multicultural Education from Ohio State University. She served on the Greensboro City School Board before becoming a state lawmaker and then a Congresswoman. Adams also worked as a professor of art at Bennett College, a historically black college for women in Greensboro North Carolina.

Janice Jackson, Sonja Brokins Santelises, William Hite- All three are superintendents of the Chicago, Baltimore, and Philadelphia school systems. Their candidacy is being pushed by Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), a group that is for the failed education reform policies of people like Michelle Rhee that include expanding charter schools, supporting high stakes testing and Common Core. All three are black and represent school districts that are predominantly low income, and all three districts have high amounts of charter schools. DFER had a lot of power within the Obama administration, so they are likely to have some supporters within the Biden Administration. However, Biden has signaled that his education policy will be drastically different from President Obama’s making it unlikely that a DFER person would be nominated in the first term.

While there are a lot of names floating around about who he will pick, many media outlets believe that the race is likely to come down to Eskelsen Garcia or Weingarten. Biden has also told teachers that they will have a big advocate in the White House in Jill Biden, an NEA member and a teacher at Northern Virginia Community College. In his victory speech last week, Biden told teachers “For American educators, this is a great day for y'all. You're gonna have one of your own in the White House. And Jill’s gonna make a great first lady. I'm so proud of her.” With a teacher selected for Education Secretary, there will be two teachers who have Biden’s ear.

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