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New Biden Education Staffers Arrive Via Gates Foundation, K-12 Reform Group, Sen. Sanders

By Andrew Ujifusa — February 05, 2021 5 min read
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The latest round of political appointees to the U.S. Department of Education include a veteran of Capitol Hill and Beltway education groups, the former leader of Democrats for Education Reform’s District of Columbia affiliate, and two former Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation staffers.

The Biden administration appointments, announced Feb. 3, fill spots in key offices, although nominees for the top jobs in the office for civil rights and office of planning, evaluation, and policy development on a permanent basis have yet to be announced. (We gave folks a heads up about two of the most recent appointments here and here before they were officially announced.) However, a few such jobs are being filled on an acting basis.

It’s difficult to discern just one trend or policy direction based on Biden’s Education Department appointments so far; those who’ve worked for and supported teachers’ unions in the past, for example, will be working alongside union skeptics and those who’ve drawn labor’s ire in the past. The administration announced its first set of department appointees last month, and it included two former National Education Association staffers.

Meanwhile, Miguel Cardona’s progression towards becoming the next education secretary continues, following his confirmation hearing. The Senate education committee is due to consider his nomination on Feb. 11.

Here are a few notable names from the latest round of appointments:

Jessica Cardichon, deputy assistant secretary, office of planning, evaluation, and policy development. Cardichon is an education policy veteran in Washington. She comes to the Education Department from the Learning Policy Institute, a K-12 policy and research group founded and led by Linda Darling-Hammond, who led Biden’s transition team for the department. Cardichon was the group’s federal policy director. While at LPI, Cardichon contributed to reports about COVID-19 relief, how to “reimagine schooling,” and student access to certified teachers.

She’s also worked as education counsel to Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., on the Senate education committee; the Alliance for Excellent Education, a research and advocacy group, and at Teachers College, Columbia University. A long-time ally of teachers’ unions and a critic of standardized testing, Sanders has taken on a big role in the Senate during the creation of a new COVID-19 relief package.

Ramin Taheri, chief of staff, office for civil rights. Taheri comes to the department after serving as the District of Columbia chapter director of Democrats for Education Reform, a group that promotes charter schools, K-12 education funding, test-based teacher and school accountability, and other policies. The group divides opinion in the left-leaning K-12 policy space. Some have championed the group for focusing on issues they say will better served students of color and disadvantaged learners, while other claim DFER undermines teachers’ unions and traditional public schools. News that DFER was backing certain big-city superintendents to be Biden’s education secretary provoked pushback from union supporters and others skeptical of DFER. (Cardona was not on DFER’s list of preferred choices.) Taheri has also worked at Chiefs for Change, a group of district superintendents that provokes similar, if not identical, political sentiments.

Last year, DFER’s D.C. chapter under Taheri provoked controversy by singling out a candidate for the District of Columbia Council for wanting to cut police funding. Asked about the negative advertising, Taheri told the Washington City paper that the group wanted to inform voters about issues beyond education, and that the candidate’s position on police budgets was “deeply unpopular” with voters. (The candidate, Janeese Lewis George, who accused DFER of fearmongering, ultimately won her election.) The question of whether police should be in schools, and educators’ attitudes toward school resource officers, gained prominence after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis at the hands of police last year. The City Paper’s story about DFER’s mailers focused on George was published three days after Floyd’s death. Taheri later said that the group’s mailers were a mistake.

Nick Lee, deputy assistant secretary, office of planning, evaluation, and policy development; Sara Garcia, special assistant, office of planning, evaluation, and policy development. Both Lee and Garcia come to the department from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, where Lee was a senior program officer and Garcia was a program officer.

Although Lee previously managed $10 million in annual education grants covering both K-12 and higher education, according to his LinkedIn profile, he’s now listed himself as an assistant secretary for higher education at the department as of this month. Garcia also has a background in higher education, and used to work on the Senate education committee for Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who is now chairwoman of the committee.

The Gates Foundation has had a long, complex, and controversial involvement in education policy. For many years, it focused its considerable grant-making power on teacher effectiveness, teacher-performance systems, and support for the Common Core State Standards; by 2015, the foundation estimated it had put $900 million in grants toward teacher policy and programs. Previously, it had focused on supporting small high schools. These efforts became more politically controversial over time.

Supporters have applauded its focus on educators and improving instruction, while critics say its outsized influence has had a detrimental effect on policymakers. A 2018 study of one of its biggest teacher-effectiveness efforts in three districts showed no gains for students.

In recent years, the foundation has shifted its focus to support higher education access for students of color and disadvantaged students. (Note: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation provides general operating support to Education Week, which retains sole editorial control over its content.)

The full list of appointments announced Feb. 3 is here.

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