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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
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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.

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