I encourage you, as members of President Elect Biden’s Department of Education Transition Team, to recommend the appointment of Randi Weingarten or Lily Eskelsen Garcia as our next Secretary of Education. I believe that one of these women would provide the kind of leadership in public education policy that our nation and our children desperately need.
Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers, and Lily Eskelsen Garcia, the outgoing President of the National Education Association, have provided extraordinary leadership of efforts by the nation’s teachers significantly to change the long narrative of standardized test-based accountability as the primary driver of federal education policy. They are both public school educators who would turn away from Betsy DeVos’s obsession with vouchers. I believe their leadership helped shape the priorities embodied in the education plan President Elect Biden released during the campaign, an agenda designed to expand opportunity within the public schools serving our nation’s most vulnerable students. Biden’s plan, if implemented, will enhance educational equity and improve children’s experiences at school.
Here are three reasons either Eskelsen Garcia or Weingarten is the right choice to lead the U.S. Department of Education.
First: We all watched the Red4Ed strikes and walkouts during 2018 and 2019—walkouts that taught America about the devastation of state public school budgets over the decade that followed the 2008 Great Recession. Teachers on strike showed us how Tea Party tax cuts across many states had further decimated state education budgets and how states had then sent away more education dollars to a growing charter school sector and to vouchers for private school tuition. From West Virginia to Kentucky to Colorado to Oklahoma to Arizona to Los Angeles to Oakland and Chicago, teachers cried out for essentials their public schools could no longer afford—class size smaller than 37 or 40 students; enough counselors, social workers, school psychologists, school nurses and certified librarians; fairer teachers’ salaries to enable teachers in some places even to afford the rent on a one bedroom apartment in the communities where they are teaching; salaries to keep teachers in some states from quitting and moving to other states where salaries are higher; and salaries that would make young people interested in becoming teachers at a time when colleges and universities report fewer and fewer students willing to pursue teaching as a career. In some right-to-work states, the national teachers unions supported spontaneous statewide walkouts by non-unionized teachers, and in strikes launched by NEA and AFT local affiliates, Eskelsen Garcia and Weingarten walked with their teachers.
Second: All this year I have watched these two women provide a level of policy leadership I have not seen for a long time. It began with the the best planned and best executed event I have ever attended—the Public Education Candidates Forum last December in Pittsburgh. It was clear who had envisioned this meeting which brought together seven of the Democratic candidates for President with 1,500 people from NEA, AFT, the Schott Foundation, SEIU, NAACP, the Journey for Justice Alliance, the Alliance for Educational Justice, the Network for Public Education, VOTO Latino, and the Center for Popular Democracy. When I think of the diversity in that room—the questions that came from Chicago teachers and parents grieving about the Renaissance 2010 shutdown of their neighborhood schools, and comments from children in Newark who wondered why they do not have school music programs, I still have an emotional reaction. I found myself sitting between a 30 year special education teacher from the Navajo Nation and Derek Black, the constitutional law professor who just published School House Burning. That day, seven Democratic presidential candidates were pressed to commit to strategies to improve our public schools. None of the seven candidates dared to promote standardized test-and-punish; nobody promoted the expansion of charter schools. There was a lot of talk about expanding Title I and fully funding 40 percent of the IDEA. The fact that the meeting was teacher-driven was palpable.
Third: Throughout this summer and until Congress gave up at the end of October, the NEA and the AFT have relentlessly advocated for a second COVID-19 relief HEROES Act. A second relief bill was never enacted, but Weingarten and Eskelsen Garcia kept the focus on those Senate Republicans who refused to consider helping out state governments that provide over 40 percent of all public school funding. These women kept on reminding America that Congress was failing to support public schools during COVID-19, a time when schools were being pressured to reopen or were forced to operate online without adequate guidance or support. Eskelsen Garcia and Weingarten have consistently outlined what will be the years-long repercussions for the the public schools that serve our children.
While people like Michelle Rhee say that teachers unions work for the needs of adults instead of children, Michelle Rhee is wrong. Weingarten and Eskelsen Garcia have persistently pressed the Democratic Party to choose a candidate with a pro-public school plan, which is also an emphatically pro-child agenda. Weingarten spent the entire month of October on a cross country bus tour meeting with schoolteachers and promoting Biden’s election and his pro-public schools plan.
I live in Ohio, which has fallen head-over-heals behind Betsy DeVos’s dream of vouchers for all, and which, for the two previous decades, also embraced education policy dominated by technocratic, neoliberal, test-and–punish, outcomes-driven education reform. In Ohio, worrying about standardized test score outcomes instead of investment in the public schools has left us with a poorly regulated charter school sector and at least 5 different kinds of vouchers, along with state school report cards that drive segregation and educational redlining; autocratic state takeovers in Youngstown, Lorain and East Cleveland; and the third-grade guarantee. This month our legislature is considering a new school funding formula because 503 districts out of Ohio’s 610 school districts are capped or have fallen into hold-harmless guarantees. But our legislators are honest about the shortage of funding: the new plan will be a blueprint to be phased in over 6 years if the legislature can, in upcoming legislative sessions, find the money to pay for the full phase in.
We need a U.S. Secretary of Education who will lead us away from DeVos’s drive to extract dollars out of public schools for vouchers for private and religious schools. Just as important, we need an education secretary and who will not take us back to the Obama-Duncan agenda—to another Race to the Top competition, to the further expansion of charter schools, to evaluation of teachers by their students’ standardized test scores, to the idea of school closure as a turnaround plan, and all the rest.
Thank you for serving on the Department of Education Transition Team. I hope you will recommend to President Elect Biden that he appoint Lily Eskelsen Garcia or Randi Weingarten as our next U.S. Secretary of Education. These women are fully prepared to promote and implement President Elect Biden’s plan to close opportunity gaps across our nation’s public schools.