The reason president-elect Joe Biden has for nominating as his education secretary the president or former president of one of the national teachers unions is as easy to understand as the reason he has for not doing that.
The next education secretary will have a monumental task at hand in getting more than 50 million children back in schools for in-person learning during a pandemic, and Biden needs someone with experience organizing and rallying millions, someone who already knows the mechanisms of Washington and the major players in Congress, as well as the state education chiefs and big-city superintendents.
Yet in a hyper-partisan political landscape, choosing a union boss risks sowing further division in the wake of the most divisive education secretary in the history of the Education Department – this from a president-elect who ran on the promise of restoring the soul of the nation and unifying the country and who won in part thanks to the teachers unions’ powerful fundraising and get-out-the-vote efforts.
Editorial Cartoons on Education
As Biden ruminates over a deep field of contenders, two names continue resurfacing within education policy circles as legitimate front-runners: Lily Eskelsen García, who served as president of the 3 million-member National Education Association for nearly a decade before she stepped down earlier this year, and Randi Weingarten, the current president of the 1.7 million-member American Federation of Teachers.
Both are political powerhouses in their own right, having steered their respective unions through a tumultuous time in K-12 education, including a brutal campaign by GOP governors to curb workers’ rights and some detrimental Supreme Court decisions that resulted in dwindling membership and dues. And while staving off the Trump administration’s pursuit of school choice and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ blistering criticism, which they returned in equal measure, they also managed to harness the power of their members to launch one of the most effective and successful educator movements of the 21st century – one that motivated millions of teachers to strike and hold sick-outs and walk-outs in dozens of cities and states across the country to demand better pay and more funding for nurses, social workers and librarians.
Now, after more than a decade of playing defense, Eskelsen García and Weingarten stand poised to potentially be the first labor leaders nominated as education secretary, education policy insiders say, and Biden’s choice of one of them would mark a major departure from the precedent set by previous administrations, including the one he oversaw as vice president.
For as much as they’ve been at war with DeVos, the teachers union leaders had a similarly contentious relationship with the Obama administration, particularly Arne Duncan, the education secretary whose resignation they called for repeatedly over the course of his seven-year tenure.
Among other things, Eskelsen García and Weingarten blasted Duncan for embracing an education reform agenda that ushered in new academic benchmarks and tests, and pushed states to expand charter schools, evaluate and pay teachers in part on student test scores and intervene in chronically failing schools. When Obama and Biden entered the White House in 2008, roughly 1.4 million students were enrolled in 4,600 charter schools, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. By the end of the administration, more than 3 million students were enrolled in 7,000 of them.
Lily Eskelsen García(RJ Sangosti/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
But Biden is much more labor-friendly than Obama ever was, and he’s already committed, for example, to choosing a public school teacher as his education secretary and to clamping down on federal funding for charter schools – potentially even establishing some sort of enhanced accountability system for the sector, too. Not to mention the historic levels of funding he’s promised for the K-12 space, including tripling Title I funding for schools that serve lots of poor students, more than tripling it for students with disabilities and boosting teacher pay and resources for support staff like nurses and social workers, among many other big-ticket items.
Though Biden didn’t have much influence on the education agenda during the Obama administration, the members of his education transition team – half of whom are former Obama education staffers and half of whom are current or former union workers – are perhaps a mea culpa or olive branch of sorts to teachers, a continued promise that he’s prioritizing them. As one former Obama staffer put it, it’s like Biden sending a not so subliminal message of, “Hey guys, we need to work together on this one.”
“This sounds like an effort to send an important signal that he would be considering these folks, but that it wouldn’t be a landing place,” Jeffrey Henig, professor of political science and education at Columbia University’s Teachers College, says about Eskelsen García and Weingarten. “That’s still my expectation. But it’s also true that the high-profile superintendents who also come to mind and who have the management experience and the hands-on experience of what happens down at the local level, don’t necessarily know the policy stuff to the same degree.”
“Besides knowing the people and the Washington world, they also are aware of this broader landscape of issues and organizations that are important ultimately to education policies but aren’t education specific,” he says of the union leaders. “The community-based organizations, the representatives of advocates who fight on issues like minimum wage, the nurses and public health professionals. Ultimately, education policy is in a lot stronger position when it presents itself as part of a broader multi-sector approach to what’s going on in the schools and tries to tap into those constituencies. That’s the kind of thing where maybe some of these big-city superintendents aren’t so well versed.”
For as partisan as teachers unions are viewed by the public, Biden is likely aware that their negotiating skills are top-notch and that their work with GOP lawmakers behind the scenes is powerful and effective.
Such was the case when Senate Republicans and Democrats were negotiating the final details of the Every Student Succeeds Act, the federal K-12 education law that replaced No Child Left Behind. Looking for a way to stomp out reform-friendly provisions on things like teacher evaluations and school turnaround models, the National Education Association teamed up with Sen. Lamar Alexander, Tennessee Republican and chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, who also opposed the measures because of his commitment to local control, to defeat such amendments.
In fact, some in the K-12 community reading the nomination tea leaves are quick to note that education remains the last domestic policy issue for which members of both parties regularly cast aside partisanship to tackle.
Alexander, who is retiring in January, is a testament to that, having overseen one of the most productive committees in Congress that consistently reports out major legislation with bipartisan backing and finding ways to delicately craft policies that walk a political tightrope.
But GOP members like Alexander are few and far between these days – as members on both sides of the aisle are pulled closer to their party’s ideological extremes – and his retirement leaves vacant a chairmanship that, if Republicans maintain control of the Senate, would go to Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina or Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky.
To be sure, both Eskelsen García and Weingarten have testified before Congress dozens of times, but getting a union boss through a Senate confirmation hearing in this hyper-politicized environment would be challenging, almost everyone interviewed for this story agrees.
“Look, you have to reassure teachers and talk about how education professionals are important and we realize that to solve these types of problems, including the COVID-19 stuff, we need teachers as allies and collaborators,” Henig says “All those things are really important, but how much do you want to battle with not just Republicans who will go to war on the idea of union bosses but also the internal Democratic Party resistance coming from the charter school folks? Do you really want to start an administration with those battles?”
And for all the accolades they’ve received in recent years for pushing states to reinvest in their K-12 systems, there’s a chance the pandemic has scuttled at least some of that goodwill. With little to no guidance from the federal government for how schools should operate in a pandemic, a lot of local and state education woes surrounding reopening have stemmed from contentious negotiations between unions and education officials. At a time when in-person instruction isn’t an option for almost half the children in the country, teachers unions are a convenient scapegoat, fairly or not.
Others reportedly in contention include a handful of school superintendents – William Hite of Philadelphia, Sonja Santelises of Baltimore, Brenda Cassellius of Boston and Denise Juneau of Seattle – as well as Rep. Jahana Hayes, Connecticut Democrat who was National Teacher of the Year in 2016. Though many of those candidates, folks say, came up during the frenzied decade of education reform and could pose the same challenges and trust issues for teachers that Obama’s choice of Duncan did.
“I don’t know who is sitting there on the list who has really got the knowledge and the skills, but who is not so clearly identified as in a preexisting camp,” Henig says. “Nor do I know you necessarily have to hunt for that. Sometimes you make some people unhappy and you just go with it.”
The possibility also exists that it won’t be someone from the K-12 space. After all, the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act is more than a decade overdue, free public college and the cancellation of student loan debt are on the agenda, and untangling and rewriting the regulatory landscape for for-profit colleges will be a high priority for Biden.
Yet the looming decision keeps orbiting the two national teachers union leaders. And on Monday night they’ll get a very personal thank-you from Jill Biden, the future first lady who teaches English at a community college in Virginia and who is a member of the NEA herself, as she’s set to address the members of both unions during a virtual event, likely giving Cabinet nomination prognosticators even more to ruminate over.
“I think the bottom line is that both of these individuals and both of these unions are going to have a much more of an inside role than they’ve had in quite awhile at the national policy level, and that’s going to be true whether one of them is actually the secretary or not,” Henig says.