But García also is facing attacks from advocates for children with disabilities as well as from supporters of education reform policies that were popular in the Obama administration but have fallen out of favor in the Democratic Party.
The jockeying comes as the Biden transition team works to settle on an education nominee who will satisfy teachers and their unions while not alienating Democrats in the reform camp.
“The challenge for the Biden administration will be to appoint a secretary who is supportive of teachers and their unions but not opposed to innovation and change,” said Pedro Noguera, the dean of the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California.
While public attention is fixed on García, several people familiar with the transition discussions say that she is not a front-runner and that there is no consensus internally about who should get the nod.
Several people said Biden would like to choose a woman of color, as he works to assemble a diverse Cabinet. And Biden, a union supporter, told teachers unions during the campaign that he would choose someone who has been an educator, raising expectations of K-12 teachers that he would choose from their ranks.
An announcement is expected before Christmas.
No matter whom Biden chooses, the person is sure to represent an about-face from current Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who has made school choice her signature issue. The department’s priorities under the Biden nominee also may contrast with those of the Obama-era department, which advanced measures to hold schools and teachers accountable for student results.
Biden has said he will seek to significantly boost federal education spending and work to advance educational equity.
Jill Biden, the president-elect’s wife, is thought to be involved in the conversations over the education nominee, though it is not known how strongly she is weighing in. She is a former community college professor and a member of the NEA.
Biden’s team had initially leaned toward nominating Linda Darling-Hammond, who is running his education transition team, two people familiar with the process said. She is the first Black woman to serve as president of the California State Board of Education and is an expert in educational equity — a Biden priority — and teacher quality.
She was believed to be acceptable to all of the party’s factions, and has K-12 classroom experience. But early on, she took herself out of consideration, forcing the transition team to scramble.
Soon after the election, Biden campaign officials singled out two teachers union officials as possible nominees — García and Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers. Weingarten has been lower key about the matter, which may explain why there is more attention on García.
García has spoken with Republican senators, aiming to show she could be confirmed in a Senate that may remain under Republican control, two people familiar with the matter said.
She also has been endorsed by several Latino organizations, including the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda, a coalition of more than 40 civil rights and public policy groups. And in at least one television appearance, she seemed to go out of her way to signal to the Biden team that she would be a team player. Asked on MSNBC about the impact of remote learning on children, she began her reply with, “You know I just have to congratulate America on the new president that is coming in.”
But García also is coming under fierce attack. An anti-union group called the Center for Union Facts took out a full-page ad this week in the Wall Street Journal opposing her potential nomination, calling García “a staunch opponent of school reform.”
She’s also being publicly opposed by disability activists, who say that under her leadership, the NEA took positions damaging to children with disabilities on issues such as standardized testing, and on the restraint and seclusion of children. A letter sent Thursday to the Biden team by nine disability organizations said they have “series concerns” about her potential nomination.
“As the leader of NEA, Eskelsen García had the opportunity to steer the organization toward equity and access for students with disabilities but failed to do so,” they wrote.
Some have also pointed to a speech she gave in 2015 when, in rattling off the litany of responsibilities put on teachers, she referred to the “medically annoying.” She later apologized.
In response to these critics, Eskelsen García asked a Florida mother to send transition officials a letter testifying to her sensitivity when her son was battling the state over whether he had to take a standardized test while he was dying in a hospital. The mother, Andrea Rediske, a professor at Valencia College in Florida, responded by sending a supportive letter to the Biden team.
“To me, Lily embodies the soul of an educator,” Rediske wrote.
The Biden team also has looked at several school district superintendents, especially women of color, two people familiar with the process said. Women thought to be in that group include Sonja Santelises of Baltimore and Janice Jackson of Chicago. Another is Denise Juneau of Seattle, but her chances may have evaporated after she came under fire from the local NAACP chapter.
Another person talked about: Rep. Jahana Hayes (D-Conn.), a former teacher of the year. But with only a slim Democratic majority in the House, the Biden team is hesitant to draw from their ranks. If Hayes were chosen, her seat would be filled by special election.
Without a clear choice, the Biden team has looked at people from higher education, people familiar with the matter said. That includes Leslie Fenwick, a former dean of education at Howard University who once taught in an urban school district, three people familiar with the process said.
Other people thought to be under consideration include Michael L. Lomax, the president and chief executive of the United Negro College Fund since 2004, and Eloy Ortiz Oakley, the chancellor of California Community Colleges, the largest public higher education system in the country. One of Biden’s proposals is to make community college free for all.
Nick Anderson contributed to this report.