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Biden Pick for Education Civil Rights Office Has History With Racial Equity, LGBTQ Issues

By Evie Blad — May 13, 2021 2 min read
Flags decorate a space outside the office of the Education Secretary at the Education Department in Washington on Aug. 9, 2017.

President Joe Biden plans to nominate Catherine Lhamon to serve as assistant secretary for civil rights at the U.S. Department of Education, a role she previously held in the Obama administration.

The impending nomination of Lhamon, currently a White House adviser, signals plans for an aggressive civil rights push by the Biden Education Department. She will help direct efforts in areas like racial equity, LGBTQ rights, schools’ response to sexual assault and harassment, and efforts to root out systemic inequality in schools.

In a 2017 interview with Education Week after she’d left the Obama administration, Lhamon called the Trump administration’s approach to education civil rights “distressing and dangerous.”

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In her previous tenure at the department, she oversaw the creation of two key pieces of civil rights guidance: a directive that said transgender students had the right to access school facilities, like locker rooms and restrooms, that matched their gender identity; and another that said schools may be in violation of federal civil rights laws if they have significant racial disparities in discipline rates.

Both of those directives were overturned by the Trump administration, and Biden has said he will reinstate them.

Under Lhamon, the Education Department responded to civil rights complaints by examining school and district data to look for broader patterns of discrimination, rather than focusing solely on the incident in question. The Trump administration also steered away from that approach, calling it overreach.

“Unfortunately, in the past four years, all we saw was blatant efforts to dodge civil rights under the law,” Lhamon told Education Week in December.

Lhamon currently serves on the White House Domestic Policy Council. Before that, she chaired the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

Nominee will face a full agenda

If confirmed by the Senate, she will join the Education Department as it confronts several key civil rights issues.

The agency is undergoing efforts to review and rewrite its policies for enforcement of Title IX, the federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in schools. That work will touch on schools’ obligations to respond to reports of sexual assault and harassment and the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students.

The Education Department has also opened investigations into some school districts to determine if they adequately served students with disabilities during the COVID-19 pandemic.

And U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona has stressed concerns about racial equity at a time of tense public debate over the issue.

“We are thrilled to have Catherine serving as Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights and know she will continue to fight for fairness, equity, and justice for all of America’s students,” Cardona said in a statement Thursday, as the administration announced its intent to nominate her.

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