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Who are the Candidates for the Biden Secretary of Education?

Welcome to Washington’s “end of the semester” sprint. Will that FY 2021 spending bill cross the finish line by the end of the year or be pushed into next year for the new Congress to grapple with?  Will the President refuse to sign the bill and cause a government shutdown? Will there be another COVID relief bill any time soon? And how about the Biden Secretary of Education?

Congress Punts FY 2021 Funding Bill and COVID Relief Package until Next Week

They say there is nothing that focuses the mind like a deadline. In Washington, that means moving the deadline to the edge of the cliff before acting. This week, the House and Senate agreed to extend the December 11 deadline for funding the government to next Friday, December 18, giving them an additional week to negotiate and finalize the $1.4 trillion bill.  President Trump is expected to sign the bill, called a continuing resolution, but he is a hard one to predict. 

Consensus on a bi-partisan COVID relief bill seems to be growing on one day and shrinking the next. Many appear hopeful that another week could bring them to closure so that the COVID relief bill and the FY 2021 spending bill could be packaged together and delivered to the White House as an early Christmas present.  There could also be a further extension of the deadline, even through Christmas. Speaker Pelosi (D-CA) has said she is not leaving town without a deal on both. 

The bipartisan COVID relief bill that is in play appears as if it would provide an additional $82 billion for education. There is also a push to include $160 billion for state and local government—some of which could also be used for education. Republicans are not keen on the state and local government funding. Their priority is liability shields (which appear to involve waiving civil rights laws, including the ADA), a provision opposed by the Democrats. Whether or not this impasse will doom the negotiations remains to be seen.    

Speculation Over Biden’s Secretary of Education Nominee Grows

President-elect Biden continues to name his nominees for Cabinet posts at a rapid clip.  Speculation over who will be the Secretary of Education mounted this week. Lilly Eskelsen Garcia has garnered considerable attention with an endorsement from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and over 40 national Hispanic organizations. First Lady to be Dr. Jill Biden is a longtime member of the union Eskelsen Garcia used to lead, the National Education Association, and has noted her indebtedness to the union in supporting her husband’s victory. Eskelsen Garcia is reported to have been in contact with outgoing chair of the Senate HELP Committee, Lamar Alexander (R-TN), who reportedly spoke positively about her candidacy. But backlash has taken shape too. The disability community was quite vocal in responding to a 2015 speech she made referring to “chronically ‘tarded and the medically annoying.” She has since apologized saying she misspoke, but disability advocates remain concerned. Nine national disability organizations issued a letter this week expressing serious concerns about her candidacy noting that during her tenure the NEA took a number of policy positions that “were detrimental to the success of students with disabilities.” The University Centers on Disabilities, the National Center for Learning Disabilities and the National Down Syndrome Congress were among the organizations signing the letter. In addition, the anti-union group, Union Facts.com, took out a full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal opposing her because of her dislike for charter schools and the use of student test scores in evaluating teachers. 

This week a letter from 1,000 black women was released urging Biden to pick more black women for cabinet posts. Four women were listed as possibilities for the position of Secretary of Education:         

  • Johnnetta Betsch Cole (former President of Bennett College and Spelman College)
  • Leslie Fenwick (Dean in Residence at the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE), Dean Emeritus Howard University School of Education)
  • Lily McNair (President of Tuskegee Institute)
  • Charlene Mickens Dukes (First Female President of Prince George’s County Community College, Board Member, American Association of Community Colleges)

This week, the Washington Post released a list of who is under consideration for a range of cabinet posts.  For Secretary of Education the following four individuals were listed: 

  • Leslie T. Fenwick, AACTE Dean in Residence
  • Lilly Eskelsen Garcia, former President of NEA
  • Jahanna Hayes (D-CT), 2016 National Teacher of the Year
  • Randi Weingarten, President of American Federation of Teachers

Multiple other candidates have been mentioned including state education chiefs, big city superintendents, and former Sec. of Education under the Obama Administration, John King. President-elect Biden has said he will choose someone who has public school teaching experience. The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights issued a statement about the qualities needed in the next Secretary of Education.


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Jane E. West

AACTE Education Policy Consultant

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