Disability Groups Oppose Ex-Union Head for Education Secretary

  • Major Hispanic organizations back Lily Eskelsen García
  • Critics say she failed to pursue equity and access at union

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National advocates for students with disabilities are looking to put the brakes on a potential Biden administration nominee for secretary of education: former teachers’ union president Lily Eskelsen García.

Eskelsen García, who led the National Education Association, received endorsements from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and national Hispanic organizations. President-elect Joe Biden could fulfill a promise to appoint an educator and make history by picking the first Latina for that role, the groups said.

Disabled students’ advocates begged to differ, telling the Biden transition team in a letter circulated Thursday that Eskelsen Garcia had failed to steer NEA, the nation’s largest teachers union, toward supporting equity and access for such students.

Eskelsen García has been prominently discussed as one of several potential candidates under consideration for education secretary. Among others under wide speculation are Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, and Sonja Santelises, chief executive officer of Baltimore City Public Schools.

Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images
Lily Eskelsen Garcia speaks at a news conference at the U.S. Capitol on May 22, 2018.

Eskelsen García’s supporters have been the most outspoken so far in pushing to have her nominated, and she’s been mentioned as a potential education secretary since the November election. The new criticism may complicate the incoming administration’s efforts to reflect key constituencies in its Cabinet picks.

Biden’s wife, Jill, is a community college teacher, and his campaign has had a close relationship with national teachers’ unions. He pledged this week that getting students back in schools would be a priority for his first 100 days in office. Working with state and local officials to safely reopen schools will be among the most pressing issues for the next education secretary.

Teacher Unions See Reflection in Biden, Expect Renewed Influence

Eskelsen García, if selected, would be the third Hispanic official named to Biden’s Cabinet. So far, he has picked Alejandro Mayorkas, the former director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, to lead the Department of Homeland Security, and Xavier Becerra, the California attorney general, to lead the Department of Health and Human Services.

Exams Questioned

The letter takes issue with NEA-backed policies under Eskelsen García’s leadership that parents and advocates for children with disabilities criticized. The union opposed statewide standardized assessments, citing their harm to students with disabilities, the groups wrote. The advocates said those exams are the only indicator available to assess how disabled students are learning compared with peers.

Under Eskelsen García, NEA also dropped support for legislation to end seclusion and restraint in schools — practices most frequently used for students with disabilities — the organizations said, although the union backed the legislation when it was first introduced and opposes use of restraint in schools.

An NEA spokesperson said the organization and the educators it represents “are 100 percent committed ensuring all students have every possible opportunity to succeed – including and especially students with disabilities.”

Despite the criticism of the union’s positions, Eskelsen García has called for boosting spending on students with disabilities. In 2016, she called for Congress to fully fund the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the federal law governing education for students with disabilities.

Eskelsen García has drawn disability advocates’ criticism in the past. In 2015, she made comments in a speech that several of those organizations said were insulting to students with disabilities. Eskelsen García apologized for the comments, which received new scrutiny on social media this week.

To contact the reporter on this story: Andrew Kreighbaum in Washington at akreighbaum@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com; Sarah Babbage at sbabbage@bgov.com

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