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Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the National Education Association, holds her granddaughter, Lily Jo Eskelsen, at the annual Utah Education Association convention at the South Towne Expo Center in Sandy on Thursday, Oct. 19, 2017.

Kristin Murphy, KSL, File

Is former Utah teachers leader slated for Education secretary in Biden administration?

By Marjorie Cortez, Deseret News | Posted - Nov. 8, 2020 at 5:14 p.m.



SALT LAKE CITY — Former Utahn Lily Eskelsen Garcia, who recently concluded six years as president of the nation's largest teachers union, is considered a contender for Education secretary in the administration of President-elect Joe Biden, according to Politico.

The Washington-based website and newspaper that focuses on American politics says Eskelsen Garcia, Utah Education Association president in the 1990s, is "an early favorite for the position."

"Biden has committed to putting a public school teacher atop the Department of Education, a pledge that has encouraged unions and public education advocates alike, and is seen as a hard rule within the transition team. Given Biden's close ties to organized labor, there is also a widespread expectation that he wants to put a union official or someone with union ties in his cabinet," according to Politico.

Eskelsen Garcia, a former elementary school teacher in Utah and former president of the NEA, which claims 3 million members, checks off both boxes.

"Having a secretary of Education who has been a boots-on-the-ground classroom teacher who knows how policies make their way to the classrooms and into the lives of our students and into the working conditions of our teachers, that is just so exciting to me and so invaluable," said Utah Education President Heidi Matthews on Saturday.

Matthews said educators nationwide consider Eskelsen Garcia an "incredible leader who fits 100% of the criteria for secretary of Education."

The federal government's role in public education is about leveling the playing field for the most vulnerable and disenfranchised individuals, Matthews said.

"That's what Lily's whole life has been, advocating for the underdog and for social justice, racial justice, education, the rights of women and lifting up people in poverty so that they can be successful and have all the opportunities and outcomes. That's the federal presence in education," she said.

Should Eskelsen Garcia be appointed to the cabinet post, she would be the second Utahn to hold the position. Terrel H. Bell served as Education secretary during the Reagan administration.

According to her bio on her blog Lily's Blackboard, Eskelsen Garcia got her start in working in schools as a cafeteria worker and later became a kindergarten aide. The teacher she assisted encouraged her to go to college and become a teacher.

Eskelsen Garcia worked her way through the University of Utah on scholarships, student loans and as a starving folk singer and graduated magna cum laude in elementary education and later earned a master's degree in instructional technology, her biography states.

Nine years into her teaching career, she was selected Utah Teacher of the Year and she used the platform to speak out against the insufficient funding of Utah's public schools. The following year she was elected UEA president.

In 1998, she ran for Congress as a Democrat against incumbent Rep. Merrill Cook, R-Utah. She raised $1 million and garnered 45% of the vote but lost by 10 percentage points.

Other contenders for Education secretary, according to Politico, are Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers and former president of New York City's AFT Local 2; and Linda Darling-Hammond, education professor emeritus at Stanford University and president and CEO of the Learning Policy Institute.

As NEA president, Eskelsen Garcia was frequently critical of President Donald Trump's Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

"A lot of folks like Betsy DeVos who have abandoned public schools ... They don't want to see improvements in public schools, it works to their agenda to underfund them and to make them joyless, horrible places," she said in an article published by The Hill in 2019.

"We aren't going to let that happen. We're going to stick around in those schools no matter what."

Eskelsen Garcia made the remarks during a public education forum in Pittsburgh. The event also featured former Vice President Joe Biden.

In a Deseret News interview earlier this year, Eskelsen Garcia said classroom conditions in Utah public schools haven't changed much since she taught sixth grade in Granite School District's Orchard Elementary School back in the 1980s.

She had 39 students in her classroom — numbers not ideal for teaching and learning — and that also meant her classroom was a human petri dish.

"Over the millennia we have been underfunded. We have not been given what we've needed to do our jobs. But I cannot remember ever once in the past 30 years thinking that this time it might cost me my life. This time, if a kid sneezes on me, I don't catch their cold. I end up in the ICU," Eskelsen Garcia said of classroom conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Marjorie Cortez

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