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How a GOP-Controlled Senate Could Affect Biden's Pick for Education Secretary

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Speculation has been building in the education world for a while about president-elect Joe Biden's possible pick for education secretary. If Biden has a Democratic Senate to work with, his job would be relatively straightforward politically. But it appears there will be two Senate run-off elections now set to take place in Georgia in January.

What happens if the GOP, whose Senate candidates won the majority of votes in the Nov. 3 contests, wins both seats and maintains a narrow majority in the Senate? 

If they hold the Senate, Republicans would have significant leverage in decisions about who serves in key Biden administration posts. There's already talk about how a GOP Senate could make life quite difficult for Biden's transition plans.

And while education secretary is not a top cabinet post, there's an unusual potential X-factor: Some Republicans might decide that a little revenge is in order for the unprecedented hurricane of opposition U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos faced when she was picked for the Trump administration back in 2017. 

Biden has already promised that his secretary of education would be a former public school educator; a top adviser declined to clarify recently if that meant someone from the K-12 world or higher education. American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, as well as National Education Association President Becky Pringle and Pringle's immediate predecessor, Lily Eskelsen García, meet that standard. Weingarten and García are reportedly in the running for the job. Their names have come up in such conversations for many months. 

But the two unions' vigorous support for Biden in the 2020 general election, their overall hostility to school choice, and their default position on collective bargaining issues could make it difficult for a nominee with deep or direct ties to unions to get the thumbs-up from a GOP-controlled Senate. 

'Respects Our Professionalism'

So could all that lead a President Biden to pick nominee who disagrees with the unions and their allies on key issues, in order to appease Senate Republicans?

"I don't think he will pick someone like that," said Becky Pringle, the president of the National Education Association, who like others spoke to us before the Associated Press called the race for Biden on Saturday. If that happened, she stressed, "I don't believe that the secretary of education would be able to actually achieve the vision that he has set out."

In conversations with Joe Biden and his wife Jill Biden—who's an NEA member—it's been clear that the president-elect would pick someone "who respects our professionalism and professional authority" and also focus on civil rights and inequities in education.

"When he says he's going to nominate an educator who's had experience in public education, [he's] going to do that," Pringle said. "When he says that he's going to nominate someone who believes that education is a public good and the foundation of our democracy, he's going to do that."

Biden has promised a massive infusion of federal funding for disadvantaged students and to help schools address the pandemic. He's also pledged to restore Obama administration civil rights initiatives.

Pringle said she plans to keep teaching in Philadelphia and won't be education secretary. 

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said she's confident Biden would pick someone who would believe in and advocate for the recommendations laid out by a joint task force earlier this year from leaders appointed by the president-elect and his 2020 competitor for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. Those recommendations include new limits on charter schools and pay raises for teachers. 

"That's what I'm hoping for, and that's what I believe that they want," Weingarten said, referring to Biden's team. "If [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell wants to attempt to be an obstructionist, there's going to be a lot of acting cabinet secretaries."

Weingarten noted that she believes Republicans weren't thrilled with DeVos' tenure, to say nothing of Democrats, and that bipartisan passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act shows there's still common ground that both parties can work from. She said she was "honored" to be mentioned as a possible education secretary, but said she was focused on her current duties. 

So is a confrontation looming about this if there's a GOP-run Senate? And would Biden run toward it or duck it? 

"I think it makes it much less likely that a union-affiliated nominee will be confirmed," said Martin R. West, a professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a former adviser to Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Senate education committee. "Now, I think it's too early to anticipate what sort of strategy a Biden administration will take, given the context that they would face. They may choose to nominate some people that the Republicans are uncomfortable with to try to force the Republicans to make it look like they're being obstructionist."

As Weingarten alluded to, the hostility between Republican members of Congress and teachers' unions can be overstated. Remember, the NEA gave Alexander its "Friend of Education" award in 2016 after Alexander led efforts to pass the Every Student Succeeds Act. Republicans and unions might sometimes share concerns about federal regulations that affect educators ability to exercise autonomy in areas like student discipline.

But Alexander, who worked to make ESSA a law with bipartisan support, is about to retire from Congress. And there's no clear successor to Alexander as a Republican who can cut deals with Democrats on major education issues. 

If Republicans keep the Senate, Alexander's success as Senate education committee chair would also have a huge role to play in nomination proceedings. Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., is next in line to serve as the committee chairman in that scenario, while Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., would follow; Burr is retiring at the end of his term in 2022. 

History at Work

Even if a big union official isn't picked, the unions—both of which endorsed Biden, worked hard to elect him, and have opposed the Trump administration at virtually every turn—will likely have a significant influence over whoever Biden does pick.

Meanwhile, Democrats for Education Reform, a group that's often clashed with the unions on issues like choice and accountability, has its own lobbying effort under way to influence Biden's pick. But the pressure from unions, advocacy groups, and others, will be significant. 

Another part of the backdrop would be the complicated and often contentious relationship unions had with the Obama administration. They will be pushing hard to avoid a repeat of 2014, when it soured so badly that the NEA demanded that then-education Secretary Arne Duncan resign.

That history, along with the "tragedy" of DeVos' tenure, is one reason why Biden should reject any pressure to pick a nominee who's more amenable to Republicans, or Democrats who take a middle-of-the-road approach to key issues, said Yohuru Williams, a board member of the Network for Public Education, a group that's aligned with the unions on issues like education funding and charter schools. "I absolutely believe it's our turn and that there's not room for compromise" when it comes to what a nominee supports, Williams said. 

"I would hope that the unions exercise that influence to force the Biden administration to abide by his promises on the campaign trail," Williams added.

Jack Schneider, an assistant professor of education at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, echoed that sentiment. Schneider wrote in an email that the "treaty thinking" that might lead Biden to pick a more moderate nominee has been wrecked by DeVos. He said there's an irony in that some Democrats "would like nothing better than for Biden to pick someone who is pro-charter [and] tough on teachers." 

Duncan, the head of Chicago Public Schools when Obama nominated him to lead the Education Department, was lavished with praise by Republicans as well as Democrats and coasted to confirmation in 2009. Democrats controlled the Senate at that time. 

A school superintendent from a major district who get could union approval, or a state schools chief, might strike the right balance if the Senate is run by the GOP, given Biden's preference for an educator, West noted. He added that Biden could sidestep that particular political minefield altogether by nominating someone from higher education. 

"I've been waiting for that to happen for 20 years," West said.

Pringle and Weingarten both indicated they wouldn't automatically oppose such a nominee; the AFT and NEA have members at colleges and universities. 

Back in 2016, Weingarten denied any interest in becoming education secretary if Hillary Clinton won the presidency. 

(Like other news outlets, Education Week relies on the Associated Press to call election results.) 

Photo: Joe Biden (Jeff Roberson/Associated Press)


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