What Joe Biden actually promised about replacing Education Secretary Betsy DeVos

Biden was at a candidates event in Houston with National Education Association members in July 2019 when he said: “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.”

That promise has led many K-12 teachers from public schools to expect he would pick an education secretary from their ranks, and many will be disappointed if that doesn’t happen.

Obama’s long-serving education secretary, Arne Duncan, infuriated teachers with school overhauls that used standardized test scores as key metrics for evaluating schools and teachers as well as other measures. They are expecting a different education agenda from Biden, whose platform includes big supports for teachers and public schools.

But Biden’s promise of a teacher as education secretary could also mean someone from higher education — even though the word “teacher” usually refers to the K-12 world. Speculation that the nomination might come from the higher education sector was fueled on Oct. 22, when Stef Feldman, the Biden campaign’s national policy director talked about education issues during a conversation with members of the Education Writers Association.

She said Biden would name “a former public school educator” to succeed DeVos. When asked whether that would be someone from the K-12 world or higher education, she did not clarify.

(I later asked the Biden camp to clarify; it didn’t.)

Since then, names from higher education have been tossed into the mix of potential candidates in an increasingly frenzied conversation about just whom Biden will choose to revamp and run the Education Department. More than a dozen people are mentioned in the media as being under consideration for education secretary — even though it is unclear what “under consideration” means.

Biden’s camp has been collecting lists of candidate names from people — and getting unsolicited advice as well. But being included on a list doesn’t mean they are under serious consideration by Biden and his team, including his wife, Jill, a longtime community college professor, who many Biden watchers say will have a voice in the decision.

Education isn’t traditionally a particularly contentious Cabinet post, but it was when President Trump picked DeVos, a Michigan billionaire who was confirmed by the Senate in February 2017 after Vice President Pence broke a tie on the Cabinet nomination, for the first time in U.S. history. DeVos famously referred to public schools as a “dead end.”

Obama’s choice of education secretary was controversial as well. After Obama won election in 2008, he chose renowned educator Linda Darling-Hammond as his education transition chief and many thought she would be named education secretary. Opponents who feared she would not go along with overhauls that sought to run public schools like businesses waged a public campaign by accusing her of being in the pocket of teachers’ unions, which she wasn’t. Obama picked Arne Duncan, a member in good standing of that reform movement.

Interestingly enough, Biden picked Darling-Hammond, the first Black woman to serve as president of the California Board of Education, as his education transition chief. She has said she doesn’t want to be education secretary, leaving the field wide open for speculation — and loud politicking.

The strongest and most sustained opposition being voiced is against two union leaders believed to be in the mix: Randi Weingarten, the longtime president of the American Federation of Teachers, the second-largest teachers union in the country; and Lily Eskelsen García, who recently stepped down as president of the National Education Association, the largest labor union in the country. They both have supporters talking to the Biden camp and have been included in lists by mainstream publications, including The Washington Post and the New York Times.

William McGurn, a Wall Street Journal editorial writer and columnist who was a chief speechwriter for President George W. Bush, pulled no punches when he wrote recently:

“Everyone has understood that a Biden Education Department would mark a change of direction from the past four years. But to elevate to education secretary someone whose career has been spent fighting any reform aimed at relaxing the teachers unions’ stranglehold on the public schools would be an astonishingly bleak admission about whose interests come first.”

It’s an oft-repeated canard that the unions have a “stranglehold” on public schools (which isn’t to say they don’t have some power) and to suggest teachers and those who support their unions don’t put children first. But it may have less impact with the Bidens.

Jill Biden is a longtime member of the National Education Association, and Joe Biden is a longtime union supporter who has long maintained at least decent relations with the unions — even when Duncan came under attack from the NEA and the AFT. Weingarten has said that when the AFT was not getting along with the Obama administration, Biden was our “go-to guy who always listened to us.”

But it is clear as mud whether Biden would risk a confirmation fight in the Senate over a labor leader if the Republicans hold the chamber after January runoff elections in Georgia. His newly announced Cabinet nominees include zero lightning rods, which is not to say he won’t pick one and push for confirmation or even name one as acting secretary, which would not require Senate approval.

Meanwhile, public-education advocates such as Carol Burris, a former educator and executive director of the nonprofit Network for Public Education, have said they hope Biden doesn’t choose from a list of superintendents advanced by Democrats for Education Reform, which was founded by hedge-fund managers and has supported some of the things DeVos has championed, including charter schools and school vouchers and the restriction of unions. (Burris has written posts for this blog on charter schools and other issues.)

Burris said in a tweet that Biden should not pick Baltimore City Schools CEO Sonja Santelises, who supports charter schools and overhauls disliked by the Network for Public Education, prompting a rush of public support for Santelises by supporters who wrote on social media with the hashtag “IStandWithSonja.”

Of the 11 education secretaries appointed since the department was created in 1979 (not including those who served in an acting capacity), three were K-12 teachers: John B. King Jr. under Obama after Duncan resigned; Terrel Bell under President Ronald Reagan; and Roderick Paige under President George W. Bush. Several others had experience teaching in higher education, and one, Lauro F. Cavazos, who served under Reagan and President George H.W. Bush, was president of a university.

One thing Biden has repeatedly made clear is that he is interested in boosting the professional lives of K-12 teachers.

As far back as 2010, Jill Biden welcomed the National Teachers of the Year to the vice president’s residence and made sure her husband was home to greet them as well. He sent a message about how important they are to him by explaining in detail how he moved a scheduled meeting of government officials about nuclear weapons so that he could show up.

Last July, he told NEA members at their annual convention: “You are, and I’m not joking about this, you are the most important profession in the United States. You are the ones that … give these kids wings. You give them confidence. You let them believe in themselves. You equip them. And I promise you, you will never find in American history a president who is more teacher-centric and more supportive of teachers than me.”

And he said to the AFT’s annual convention last summer:

“Well, first of all, thanks for considering me, number one. Number two, I’ve been arguing a long time, because I’ve been listening to my wife, by the way, my deceased wife was a teacher as well, that education should be putting more in the hands of educators. You should have more input on what you teach, how you teach it, and when you teach it. You are the ones in the classrooms. You should have more input.

“And I really mean this. I’m not just trying to be nice. You are, and you need that more. So first of all, this is going to be a much more teacher-centric education system. I grant it, the vast majority of the funding comes out of the state and local communities, but the portion that’s federal, you’re going to have a major say on how it’s spent, where it’s spent, and on what it’s spent.”

That doesn’t sound like someone who wants to disappoint millions of K-12 teachers who think he is going to pick an education secretary from their ranks, but stay tuned.

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