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Replacing DeVos: Contenders Surface for Biden’s Education Secretary Pick

By Andrew Ujifusa — November 09, 2020 4 min read
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President-elect Joe Biden’s victory means big changes for education policy and politics, including a new leader for the U.S. Department of Education. So who could be in the running to take the reins after four years of controversy under Education Secretary Betsy DeVos?

One name that’s apparently off the table: Linda Darling-Hammond. She leads the California board of education and the Learning Policy Institute and has often mentioned as a possible Democratic education secretary. She has ruled out taking the job, the California education news outlet EdSource reported Sunday. However, EdSource did report that she’s leading Biden’s education transition team; she was head of Obama’s transition team for education in 2008.

We highlighted some possible education secretaries under a Democratic president early this year based on conversations with several sources. Their names have come up again in recent days. Let’s run through those and other people who might be in the mix:

  • A lot of speculation has focused on Biden nominating American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten or former National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García. The unions endorsed Biden, and they don’t want a repeat of the tensions that characterized their relationship with the Obama administration. Could Biden reward the unions for their support in a very direct way?

    Late last week, as the election swung in Biden’s favor, Weingarten did not definitively rule herself in or out. She told us that she was honored to be mentioned but was focused on her work leading the AFT. (Current NEA President Becky Pringle did rule herself out.) However, if the GOP keeps its control of the Senate in the next Congress, it might be difficult for Weingarten and García to get enough votes in the Senate. Something else to keep in mind: Jill Biden is a member of the NEA.

  • Even if it’s not someone from the AFT or NEA, they undoubtedly will influence Biden’s pick. That could lead to Biden selecting a major school district superintendent who gets union backing. Such names could include Brenda Cassellius of Boston and Denise Juneau of Seattle; both are former state education chiefs. Juneau also ran unsuccessfully as a Democrat for a 2016 U.S. House seat in Montana. Other superintendents to look out for, based on a list floated by Democrats for Education Reform, include William Hite of Philadelphia and Sonja Santelises of Baltimore. However, DFER and the unions have clashed in the past on key issues like charter schools; Biden’s campaign platform sided with the unions in supporting significant new limits on charter schools.

    If Biden picks a district leader, it’ll be interesting to see if that leader’s response to the pandemic becomes an issue during the confirmation process.

  • Don’t discount Biden picking someone from higher education. For example, back in 2016, University of Maryland, Baltimore County President Freeman Hrabowski was mentioned as a possible secretary in a Hillary Clinton administration. Last month, Hrabowski wrote about higher education’s role in reversing structural racism, which is set to be a key education issue for the next administration. Biden has pledged to pick a public school educator to be education secretary, but last month his campaign didn’t specify whether that mean someone with a K-12 or higher education background.
  • Obama picked former New York state schools chief John B. King Jr. to be his second education secretary. And former President Bill Clinton picked South Carolina Gov. Richard Riley to lead the Education Department. Someone with a background in state leadership could match what Biden wants.
  • As we noted last February, no one has transitioned directly from Congress to leading the Education Department. But one name in the mix could be Rep. Jahana Hayes, D-Conn., the 2016 National Teacher of the Year. Hayes was elected to Congress in 2018, is a member of the House education committee, and made waves last year when she confronted U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos about arming teachers. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., the former Denver schools superintendent, has also been mentioned, but Bennet said earlier this month he wouldn’t serve as Biden’s education secretary.

One other point: Keep an eye on which Obama Education Department alums might return to the agency. Although former top officials—think assistant secretaries—might not rush to return to their former posts, it’s not out of the realm of possibility: Kenneth L. Marcus served as assistant secretary for civil rights at the department under Trump, and was delegated the responsibilities of that job under President George W. Bush. (That civil rights position in particular could be very important in a Biden Education Department.)

In general, people a few rungs below those leadership positions during the Obama era might eye a return to more senior jobs in a Biden administration.

Photo: Former National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García, left, and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten in 2016 in Philadelphia. (Andrew Ujifusa/Education Week)