Biden weighs options for education secretary who will face early political pressure in school reopening bid

President-elect Joe Biden promised to nominate a teacher for education secret...

Posted: Dec 19, 2020 10:24 AM

President-elect Joe Biden promised to nominate a teacher for education secretary -- and could quickly put his choice into a political pressure cooker, as teachers' unions balk at school reopening plans and Biden seeks to reopen most schools within 100 days of taking office.

Biden's goal is to have his remaining Cabinet selections announced by Christmas, a transition official told CNN -- a timeline that means he would need to choose a nominee for education secretary within days.

The handful of candidates sources said were under serious consideration demonstrates the political pressures Biden is facing. Some would give his Cabinet more diversity, advancing an often-stated aim. Some would be welcomed by teachers' unions, but could face fiercer Republican opposition in the confirmation process.

Two of the contenders, according to a source familiar with the matter, are union leaders and former teachers: Lily Eskelsen García, who was president of the National Education Association for six years, and Randi Weingarten, the long-time labor leader who has been president of the American Federation of Teachers since 2008.

Biden is also considering Leslie Fenwick, the dean emeritus of the Howard University School of Education and an education policy professor, and Miguel Cardona, Connecticut's education commissioner, another source familiar with the matter said. Their consideration was first reported by The Washington Post. Transition officials declined to comment on potential picks.

Another contender is Guilford, North Carolina, County Schools Superintendent Sharon Contreras, a third source familiar with the Biden team's thinking on its education department pick said.

The third source cast doubt on whether Weingarten was a serious candidate for the role, saying her endorsement of Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren in the Democratic presidential race angered many Biden allies.

Biden's selection will come as he prepares to make a push after taking office January 20 to rapidly reopen schools that have been shuttered or shifted largely to remote learning amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Biden said last week, as he introduced his health team, that if Congress provides the necessary funding to protect students, educators and staff -- and states and cities put strong public health measures in place that Americans follow -- "my team will work to see that a majority of our schools can be open by the end of my first 100 days."

The feasibility of that goal depends in part on whether the pandemic is under control and how quickly vaccines are distributed and administered.

But it will also test Biden's relationships with teachers' unions, which have resisted Democratic plans to reopen schools -- including a proposal in California that would have students back in classrooms by March. And teachers in Chicago, New York and elsewhere are battling proposals that they say they fear would put educators in harm's way.

As part of an agenda that also includes tripling the current $15 billion in federal funding for Title I schools, which serve low-income areas, and seeking funding for counselors and social workers in schools, Biden has said he would push for a coronavirus relief package that includes money to help schools prepare to reopen, including improving ventilation systems and hiring more teachers to allow for smaller class sizes.

Biden has also said he would seek to make community college free. And his administration will face pressure from progressives to broadly forgive student loan debt. Biden has said he would seek to take action "immediately" to help borrowers, and has backed plans to forgive at least $10,000 in student loan debt.

Biden's choice is likely to enter the job with a much stronger relationship with teachers than Trump's outgoing education secretary, Betsy DeVos, who Politico reported urged career employees in the department Tuesday to "be the resistance" to the Biden administration's policies.

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus has urged Biden to pick Eskelsen Garciá, a Latina and the daughter of an immigrant mother from Panama and once the Utah teacher of the year. In a December 7 letter, the lawmakers noted that she would be the first Latina ever selected for the role.

"This nomination would reflect the changing demographics of our nation: Hispanic students are expected to account for 27.5 percent of students in public schools by fall 2029," the caucus said in the letter.

Cardona, whose parents moved from Puerto Rico to Connecticut, has pushed for schools to rapidly reopen. "In-person education is too important for our children to disrupt their education further, unless and until local conditions specifically dictate the need to do so," Cardona and Connecticut's acting public health commissioner Deidre Gifford told school superintendents in a letter last month, the Hartford Courant reported.

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