What Does a Great Secretary of Education Look Like? – Editorial by NEA State Directors Mike Harman and and Mindy Layton

In a recent New York Times article, Erica L. Green noted the many ways that the Biden administration will work quickly to “undo” the “damage” that Secretary Betsy DeVos inflicted upon the Department of Education, educators and students across the country. We have also heard expressed that Devos’ agenda was to break apart public schools and create opportunities for privatizing schools. DeVos was not an educator. She is a political operative with little to no interest in advancing public education…quite the contrary.

As you may recall, her tenure began with a tie vote in the US Senate, requiring the vice president to cast the final vote to confirm her. In one of her first appearances before the Senate appropriations committee, she advocated for a CUT in federal funding of the Department of Education, an unprecedented move by a secretary of education. Additionally, she rolled back guidance put forth during the Obama administration that protected the rights and privacy of transgendered students. All of these have had a ripple effect on our students and classrooms. Her limited public education knowledge and experience has, on a positive note, elevated the “status” of the US secretary of education.

What does a secretary of education look like in the Biden administration? Although many of us hoped it would look like a lunch lady, more specifically a “salad bar specialist” who worked her way through the ranks to become the president of the largest labor union in this country. Yes, Utah’s own Lily Eskelsen-Garcia was on the short list being considered for this important cabinet position. Unfortunately, it was not to be. President-elect Biden has nominated Miguel Cardona, the current Connecticut education commissioner as his education secretary. Although we are disappointed that Lily is not the nominee, Cardona meets the criteria set by NEA and its members for the next secretary of education.

President-elect Biden, and his NEA member wife, Dr. Jill Biden, discussed on numerous occasions throughout the campaign that the secretary of education should have public school teaching experience. Biden also indicated that the potential secretary should have a thorough understanding of the many challenges being faced by schools, students, families and communities.

NEA President Becky Pringle stated, “In these tough times, students, educators and families face unprecedented challenges – from the COVID-19 pandemic and economic crisis to the systemic racism that has held back too many students for too long. We look forward to partnering with Secretary-designate Miguel Cardona in taking on these challenges together.”

After the DeVos debacle, we are all looking forward to a PRO PUBLIC EDUCATION secretary of education, with actual classroom experience, one that values the role of associations and will defend the rights of all students.