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Lily Eskelsen Garcia Pursues US Ed Sec Post

December 6, 2020

As the December 04, 2020, Politico reports, former National Education Association (NEA) president, Lily Eskelsen Garcia, is seriously pursuing President-elect Biden’s nod for next US secretary of education.

Eskelsen Garcia earned her BS in elementary education in 1980 and her MEd in instructional technology in 1985, both from the University of Utah. She taught at Orchard Elementary School (Utah) from 1980-1990, and was selected as the Utah Teacher of the Year in 1989. The next year, in 1990, Eskelsen Garcia ran as a write-in candidate for Utah Education Association (UEA) president and won. She exited the classroom at that time and was UEA president for nine years, until 1999. In 1998, Eskelsen Garcia ran for the Utah House of Representatives and gave a close showing of it, earning 45% of the vote as a Democrat and losing to Republican incumbent, Merrill Cook.

During her time as UEA president, in 1996, Eskelsen Garcia also served at the national level on the National Education Association’s (NEA) executive committee. Her career as NEA leadership contiued with a steady rise, from secretary treasurer (2002-2008), to vice president (2008-2014), to president (2014-2020). Eskelsen Garcia’s time as NEA president officially ended when newly-elected Becky Pringle took office on Septemner 01, 2020. After serving two three-year terms, Eskelsen Garcia did not run in 2020.

As she pursues Biden’s approval for US ed sec nomination, Eskelsen Garcia has several qualities in her favor. First of all, she was a classroom teacher. In July 2020, Biden said he would “make sure the secretary of education… is a teacher.” Eskelsen Garcia spent a decade in the classroom and is a bonafide classroom teacher, and not one who appeared merely for a year or two (or less) with the ulterior motive of padding a politcal or administrative career with token teaching. 

Secondly, as the first Latina US ed sec, Eskelsen Garcia would help Biden keep his promise to appoint “the single-most diverse Cabinet based on race, colour, based on gender, that’s ever existed in the United States of America.”

Thirdly, as Politico points out, Eskelsen Garcia has successfully courted a notable Republican endorsement in retiring US senator, Lamar Alexander, who chaired the US Senate Education Committee during the drafting of what would become the long-overdue Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) revision, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), enrolled on December 05, 2015. In July 2016, NEA awarded Alexander its “Friend of Education” award; in response, EdWeek called Alexander, “The NEA’s best frenemy”:

The NEA just awarded its “Friend of Education” award to Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) for their role in shepherding the Every Student Succeeds Act through Congress. The law replaces the No Child Left Behind Act and devolves much of the authority over schools back to states.

Both honorees showed up in person to collect their award and address the 6,900-member delegation.

Murray has won the award once before, in 2013. But Alexander is the first Republican winner in more than 30 years. …

As Washington-watchers know, Alexander has a particular beef with former Secretary Arne Duncan, who issued waivers from the NCLB law that required states to set up new teacher-evaluation regimes and adopt new academic standards. 

The NEA was equally unhappy with many of those decisions, saying they were deprofessionalizing teaching and threatening teachers’ livelihood. The union famously called for Duncan’s resignation in 2014.

So, while Alexander’s opposition is grounded in a local-control argument and the union’s in its dislike of the tough accountability policies, the two have developed a good working relationship, resulting in several legislative wins, including ESSA.

As for those “new academic standards” referenced above, well, for me, this is where Eskelsen Garcia as US ed sec gets a bit sticky.

In July 2013, the Gates Foundation gave NEA $3.9M “to support a cohort of National Education Association Master Teachers in the development of Common Core-aligned lessons in K-5 mathematics and K-12 English Language Arts.” NEA took the Gates money, and Eskelsen Garcia bought into the Gates-fundedhighly-controversial Common Core.

In fact, both national teachers unions took Gates money and promoted the Common Core. In June 2012, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), led by Randi Weingarten, received $4.4M in Gates funding “to support the AFT Innovation Fund and work on teacher development and Common Core State Standards”– to follow the $1M it received “to assist teachers in understanding and implementing the Common Core State Standards” in April 2011.

In April 2015, I wrote about Eskelsen Garcia’s and Weingarten’s “Common Core Fidelity.”

Here is the rub– and my major concern about Eskelsen Garcia as US ed sec:

Yes, Eskelsen Garcia spent a decade in the classroom as a teacher. However, she exited that classroom thirty years ago, in 1990, and has been in state and national union leadership ever since. 

Is Eskelsen Garcia now more “career politician” than she is classroom teacher? 

I began teaching in 1991. Eskelsen Garcia has been out of the classroom literally for as long as I have been in it. So, yes, she was against Arne Duncan and his No Child Left Behind (NCLB) waivers, but she enthusiastically embraced the Common Core that Duncan promoted– and enticed states to embrace via his Race to the Top (RTTT) and its assessment consortium competition.

And she took the millions from Gates to market the Common Core product to teachers.

As US secretary of education, what latest-and-greatest competition might Eskelsen Garcia market to states?

I hope none.  

If Eskelsen Garcia becomes US ed sec, I hope she will work to decrease the overwhelming, wasteful, taxing burden that annual testing has become to schools and districts nationwide– perhaps via the “grade span testing” that she advocated during the ESEA reauthorization. From the NEA Today, January 2015:

NEA President Lily Eskelsen García welcomed the news on Monday that the Obama administration is calling for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) but said annual testing will continue to undermine any effort to provide every child with the resources they need to succeed academically. …

The Obama administration, however, has doubled down on annual testing, which Secretary of Education Arne Duncan made clear in his speech on Monday laying out his vision for ESEA reauthorization. …

Duncan proposed states set limits on the amount of time devoted to tests and preparation, but reiterated his support for annual testing

Garcia responded that a focus on educational opportunity, however, requires a greater reduction in standardized tests than what Duncan is proposing.

Overtesting has “corrupted the quality of the education received by children, especially those in high poverty areas,” García said.

NEA supports a return to grade span testing – one federally-required standardized test in grades 3–5, one in grades 6–9 and one in grades 10–12. This schedule would free up critical time for teaching and allows for a more dynamic, diverse, and challenging curriculum.

Grade span testing also frees up millions of education dollars to be redirected to starved education infrastructure– which is in keeping with Biden’s education plan

However, during the pandemic, even grade span testing would be unrealistic for many districts and schools. In fact, as Chalkbeat notes, whether or not to waive ESSA-required testing for 2020-21 might indeed be the first “test” of Betsy DeVos’ successor.

That successor could well be Eskelsen Garcia. We’ll find out soon enough.

If so, may she turn out to be more teacher than politician.

Lily Eskelsen Garcia


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  1. Laura H.Chapman permalink

    Thank you for this timely post and details about her teaching and political careers. You have given good reasons to be “uncomfortable” with her as a potential Secretary of Education. I have not yet hear of anyone else who might be up for consideration.

  2. Jack permalink

    Perhaps the nadir of the era when Gates had (temporarily, Thank God!) bought off & co-opted the U.S.’s two major teacher unions occurred at the 2014 AFT national convention.

    Michael Mulgrew, the president of the NYC’s AFT affliate (U.F.T.) and the largest city-wide teacher union in the country, gave an … uhhh … interesting speech. Currying favor with Gates, Mulgrew threatened to “punch in the face” anyone of the AFT’s 1.8 million members who opposed Gates’ Common Core.

    What was that guy thinking?

    Watch it here:

  3. John Fager permalink

    Randi Weingarten, the forever president of the UFT/AFT, was also mentioned along with Lily Eskelsen Garcia in a New York Times article that sourced the head of Biden’s transition team. Randi only taught full-time for six months. To complete the needed three years for state licensing she did the rest part-time. If you go to the AFT website it will tell you what college and law school Randi attended and what law firm she worked for but not what school of education she attended.
    Mulgrew was picked by Randi to succeed her. And Sandra Feldman picked Randi to be the UFT leader that positioned her to be the AFT leader. Mulgrew reminds me of some prominent political leader. They are both anti-democratic.
    Lastly, Mercedes, you may need to check your source on Garcia’s position on testing. Or I need to check mine. Randi and Garcia were anti-testing until the summer before the Dec. 2015 vote on ESSA; both leaders approved keeping the federal testing mandate. Gates influence? Yes ESSA was a slight improvement over NCLB but the federal gov’t kept the power to approve the states’ tests. I believe that their approval on testing was important for keeping the federal mandate.

    • Thanks, John. Both Garcia and Weingarten shifted their positions on testing.

      • John Fager permalink

        Thanks, Mercedes for confirming that. The questions about Garcia are numerous and not all negative. 1) Is she a Latina or is she married to one? Her name suggests that she is married to one. Being an authentic Latina is important for getting the job. Unless no one ask the question.
        2) Being corrupt on testing (Gates) and the Common Core(Gates) is huge and almost unforgivable. 3) But unlike Randi (I saw your name a couple of times digging around Randi’s experience and credentials to be a licensed teacher) Garcia was a legitimate teacher and won some kind of Best Teacher award, for what that is worth, which I learned from you. But as you point out she’s been a union politician for the last 30 years. And selling out along the way; could be Randi’s bad influence.
        4) What is the ideal, I’d settled for good, background for a person to be secretary of education? Solid experience in the classroom and experience in the corporate/political/education complex. 5) Who is better, can they get the job and is there anything we can do about it??? It is getting very late. I have two solid connections at The New York Times. Information=power. My fantasy is that we co-write an op-ed in praise of Lily. Is this too cynical? Think of the last three secretaries: Betsy DeVos, Arne Duncan and Rod Paige. None of them educators, Duncan completely in bed with Gates, DeVos hates public schools and Rod Paige was a college football coach with a doctorate. The lede could be “The Last Three US Secretaries of MisEducation and Now Who?”
        Think about it but time is of the essence. I’d like to send you my resume. You could email me and I would email my resume to you.; 917-847-2762
        Stay safe,
        John Fager

  4. Christine Langhoff permalink

    Randi and Lily are both labor leaders, not teachers. Putting either in the position of Secretary of Education leaves that job wide open to attacks on public education. I’d pass on both of them.

    Now, Mercedes Schneider, there’s someone I’d not be in the least conflicted about; Peter Greene either.

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