Leadership Symposium Early Bird Deadline Approaching | Join K-12 leaders nationwide for three days of empowering strategies, networking, and inspiration! Discounted pricing ends March 1. Register today.
Blog

Your Education Road Map

Politics K-12®

ESSA. Congress. State chiefs. School spending. Elections. Education Week reporters keep watch on education policy and politics in the nation’s capital and in the states. Read more from this blog.

Federal

Obama Education Staff Involved in Race to the Top, Civil Rights Join Biden’s White House

By Andrew Ujifusa — January 14, 2021 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Two high-profile staffers from the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration are joining President-elect Joe Biden’s team in prominent roles.

Both Catherine Lhamon and Carmel Martin will serve on the White House’s Domestic Policy Council, Biden’s transition team announced Thursday.

Lhamon, the former assistant secretary for civil rights at Obama’s Education Department, will serve as a deputy director for racial justice and equity on the council. And Martin, formerly the assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development, will be a deputy director for economic mobility.

Both Lhamon and Martin (who advised Biden’s campaign on education policy) could exert significant influence on Biden’s education policy from their new roles.

Biden has picked Miguel Cardona, Connecticut’s education commissioner, to serve as his education secretary; Cardona has no prior experience working in the federal government.

Carmel Martin had wide policy influence

As the assistant secretary at the Obama Education Department, Martin wielded extensive influence over waivers the administration granted from the No Child Left Behind Act, and the Race to the Top competition that provided cash to states if they adopted certain policies about low-performing schools, test-based teacher evaluations, and other issues. She was also involved in the administration’s School Improvement Grants.

The Obama administration spent a great deal of political capital on Race to the Top and waivers, hoping that they would not only drive deep and long-term changes to K-12 policy, but also help set the table for a revamp of the main federal K-12 law.

However, both ended up triggering significant backlash from teachers’ unions, conservatives, and others. Critics charged, for example, that Race to the Top imposed unfair policies on educators and essentially coerced states into adopting the Common Core State Standards, which grew into a difficult political problem for the Obama administration.

Martin also worked as a staffer at the U.S. Senate education committee, at the Center for American Progress, and for former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke’s failed presidential bid.

In sum, Martin has extensive political and policy experience that no doubt were big factors in her new job at Biden’s White House. But her role in Obama-era education policies that teachers’ unions, among others, vigorously opposed bears watching when it comes to her influence on the Education Department under Biden.

Catherine Lhamon worked on high-profile guidance

As the top official for education civil rights in the Obama administration, Lhamon’s office might be best known for two pieces of nonbinding guidance to schools.

One said that transgender students had the right to access school facilities, like locker rooms and restrooms, that matched their gender identity, and that gender identity was protected under Title IX, the federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex. The other said that schools with significant racial disparities in school discipline may be in violation of federal civil rights law, and urged schools to rethink policies that lead to students being removed from classrooms for nonviolent offenses.

Both the discipline and transgender-student guidance were issued in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Justice. They provoked a great deal of controversy among educators, lawmakers, and others.

Supporters said they protected students and forced schools to live up to their obligations under federal law. But critics said they effectively imposed onerous new requirements on schools and, in the case of the discipline guidance, could lead to unsafe schools.

The Trump administration rescinded both pieces of guidance. Biden has said he will reinstate them.

Under Lhamon, the office for civil rights focused on using investigations into individual incidents to determine if systemic violations were taking place. The Trump Education Department also moved away from that approach.

Lhamon is currently chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. After her time in the Obama administration, Lhamon went to work for California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat.

Biden’s team expands

Lhamon and Martin aren’t the only ones with notable backgrounds in education policy who will soon start work at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Last month, for example, the Biden transition team announced that Tina Flournoy would be Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’ chief of staff; Flournoy previously worked at the American Federation of Teachers on policy issues.

And Kate Childs Graham, the former director of communications at the AFT, recently signed up to be Harris’ director of speechwriting.

In her early days as a presidential candidate, Harris put out an ambitious plan to raise teacher pay using matching federal money.

Related Tags:

Events

Jobs Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Reading & Literacy Webinar
Science of Reading: Emphasis on Language Comprehension
Dive into language comprehension through a breakdown of the Science of Reading with an interactive demonstration.
Content provided by Be GLAD
English-Language Learners Webinar English Learners and the Science of Reading: What Works in the Classroom
ELs & emergent bilinguals deserve the best reading instruction! The Reading League & NCEL join forces on best practices. Learn more in our webinar with both organizations.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Federal Biden Admin. Says New K-12 Agenda Tackles Absenteeism, Tutoring, Extended Learning
The White House unveiled a set of K-12 priorities at the start of an election year.
4 min read
U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona participates in a roundtable discussion with students from Dartmouth College on Jan. 10, 2024, on the school's campus, in Hanover, N.H.
U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona participates in a roundtable discussion with students from Dartmouth College on Jan. 10, 2024, on the school's campus, in Hanover, N.H.
Steven Senne/AP
Federal Lawmakers Want to Reauthorize a Major Education Research Law. What Stands in the Way?
Lawmakers have tried and failed to reauthorize the Education Sciences Reform Act over the past nearly two decades.
7 min read
Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., left, joins Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., left, as Starbucks founder Howard Schultz answers questions about the company's actions during an ongoing employee unionizing campaign, at the Capitol in Washington, on March 29, 2023.
Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., left, joins Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., left, at the Capitol in Washington, on March 29, 2023. The two lawmakers sponsored a bill to reauthorize the Education Sciences Reform Act.
J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Federal Will the Government Actually Shut Down This Time? What Educators Should Know
The federal government is once again on the verge of shutting down. Here's why educators should care, but shouldn't necessarily worry.
1 min read
Photo illustration of Capitol building and closed sign.
iStock
Federal Biden Admin. Warns Schools to Protect Students From Antisemitism, Islamophobia
The U.S. Department of Education released a "Dear Colleague" letter reminding schools of their obligation to address discrimination.
3 min read
Education Secretary Miguel Cardona speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in his office at the Department of Education on Sept. 20, 2023 in Washington.
Education Secretary Miguel Cardona speaks during an interview in his office at the U.S. Department of Education on Sept. 20, 2023 in Washington.
Mark Schiefelbein/AP