A coalition of 40 national Latino groups has released a letter endorsing Lily Eskelsen Garcia, the former president of the National Education Association (NEA), to be nominated for secretary of education by President-elect Joe Biden.
In the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda (NHLA) letter obtained by Newsweek, the groups—which include the Hispanic Federation, UnidosUS, and Mi Familia Vota—among others, said her experience as a teacher and president of the largest union in the nation, as well as her history of promoting equity and civil rights, and her championing of immigrant students, make her the right pick for the cabinet position.
If chosen, Eskelsen Garcia would become the first Latina ever to serve as education secretary.
“Why is that so important? As we look at the numbers, enrollment of Latino kids has grown from 6 million in 1995, to now close to 14 million as of 2017,” Sindy Benavides, CEO of the League of United Latin American Citizens, which also signed the letter, told Newsweek. “And we know Latinos will continue to grow in our school system. Latinos are 18 percent of the population, 60 million strong, but in just 30 years, Latinos will be close to 130 million.”
Democrats and grassroots groups are pushing for Latinas to be chosen to the cabinet by Biden, giving Eskelsen Garcia, a former Utah teacher of the year, wind at her back and strong support that continues to grow.
On Wednesday, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) released its own “enthusiastic endorsement” letter, citing her advocacy for students and educators while the pandemic raged as she testified before Congress about the need for education resources and the responsibility of reopening schools safely for in-person learning.
One advantage for Eskelsen Garcia is that incoming first lady Dr. Jill Biden is an NEA member as a longtime educator.
Skipping over Eskelsen Garcia for the role would only mean increased pressure on Biden to choose a Latina for his cabinet over the next month.
“Right now, the priority for the CHC is getting a Latina in the cabinet,” a Hispanic caucus member told Newsweek of their focus over the coming weeks.
The incoming Biden administration is said to not be worried about such pressure because diversity has been a focus since day one and there are still many cabinet picks to be announced, with Latinas under consideration for most roles.
One consideration that has complicated the process is that Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, also has been mentioned as a top candidate for the role. A source with knowledge of the process said the incoming administration is treading carefully over choosing between the NEA and AFT unions, amid jockeying by both, and what could be perceived as Biden taking sides between the unions.
For her part, Weingarten told the Associated Press she is honored by the mention but is not campaigning for the nomination.
Allies of Eskelsen Garcia have stressed her bipartisan work ethic as a good match for Biden’s, citing her work “hand in glove” with Republican Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee to help end “No Child Left Behind,” which had scaled up federal involvement in schools and was replaced in 2015 under President Barack Obama.
“The NEA and Lily were instrumental to where we could fix No Child Left Behind,” a senior Republican aide told Newsweek. “The army of teachers they can bring to bear was instrumental in creating the political will for Congress to act to fix the law.”
Marco Davis, president of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute (CHCI), which also signed on to the NHLA letter, was on staff when Eskelsen Garcia was part of Obama’s advisory commission on educational excellence for Hispanics.
He said she was the one raising questions about who is not at the table, who is at risk of being left behind, and “which students or families or schools or communities are not getting the support they need to fully reach their potential.”
Davis saw that leadership again, he said, as the pandemic began.
“Since the spring, she was sounding the alarm on how our kids are learning and how are our kids—Black kids, Latino kids, rural communities—are able to access remote learning,” he told Newsweek. “If you can’t get to Zoom class, the Zoom class passes you by.”